The WaS Reduction Team and The Was Demon

The Was Reduction Team





Hi there, peeps – consider the verb was; quite an innocuous little member of the verb ‘to be’ don’t you think? Past tense, and almost invisible in both reading and writing – so it’s a good idea to check you haven’t got a swarm of them hiding in some of your paragraphs, especially if you write in past tense. And take note that the plural, were, is also over-used.

Now, I can hear you thinking – why should I remove something that’s invisible? Here are two reasons:
  • Agents and editors will spot the little blighters straight away – they know that overuse of this verb weakens the writing because ...
  • There is often a more appropriate verb and sometimes even a power-verb.
I suppose you’d like an example of a power-verb:

Here is a weak was construction: The boy was sad when he learned that his dog was dead. (Weak verb to be + adjectives: sad, dead).

And now the power-verb: The boy wept when he learned that his dog had died. (Strong verbs: wept, died).

I know ... it’s not exactly killer prose – but you can see that it is more dynamic.

About was and -ing constructions:

You can sometimes lose the was -ing construction by changing to an -ed  verb (was staring = stared) or change the likes of was looking to something more dynamic like: busied himself inspecting.

The good news is – it's easy to empower your weaker sentences: with your document open, either press the F5 key on your keyboard or press the Ctrl key and the F key on your keyboard at the same time.
  • A dialogue box pops up – click on the 'Find' tab and type was (or were) into the 'Find what:' field.
  • In advanced search, click the 'Reading Highlight' button and select 'Highlight All' (you click the 'Clear Highlighting' button to remove highlights).
Hey Presto! Every was gets a yellow background; then, as you scan through the document and discover that it looks as if someone has been kicking a wasps’ nest in some of your paragraphs – you know where to start weeding; but checking each was in turn, even when they are sporadic, is a good way to identify, and then strengthen, any weak prose in your baby ... but remember: this is not a mission to eradicate the wee fellas!

So don’t overdo the pruning; a lot of the time was works fine, or sometimes even better – use your intuition.

And when your writing is flowing, pay no heed as you type was – wait until you edit. Think of them as place-markers.

In the section below you can see how, by finding alternatives to was, even the dullest prose can be given a wee sparkle.

Yikes! ... Just look at this little lot, hiding in a first-draft scene that I wrote:

“... The endorphin-buzz kicked in about half way back.  Vic breathed deep of the icy November mist to cool his heaving lungs.  He slowed his steady dog-trot to a walk when the lights of the Lochailort Hotel came into view in the distance. The annual reunion was the high point of the year for Vic and his old section, but the rigors of time had relentlessly pared them down to a mere handful. Maybe even less than that: Mickey Brennan failed to book in yesterday and his telephone number was no longer in service. Not like Mickey to miss a gig – one could only assume the worst.
The Hotel was teeming with merry-makers from near and far, arrived to celebrate Saint Andrew’s day. Bunting festooned every wall, every doorway, with the blue and white saltire of the Scottish flag. It sounded like everyone was talking at once in the bar, or laughing even louder. Vic went to the small reception desk to collect his key and wallet from the safe. In front of him was a young American couple; the man was well made, and had a hint of New York in his accent.”

And after I called in  The Was Reduction Team:

“... The endorphin-buzz kicked in about half way back. Vic breathed deep of the icy November mist to cool his heaving lungs. He slowed his steady dog-trot to a walk when the lights of the Lochailort Hotel came into view in the distance. The annual reunion marked the high point of the year for Vic and his old section, but the rigors of time had pared their number down to a mere handful. Maybe even less than that: Mickey Brennan failed to book in yesterday and his telephone number didn’t seem to be in service. Not like Mickey to miss a gig – one could only assume the worst.
The hotel was teeming with merry-makers from near and far, arrived to celebrate Saint Andrew’s day. Bunting festooned every wall, every doorway, with the blue and white saltire of the Scottish flag. It sounded like everyone was talking at once in the bar, or laughing even louder. Vic went to the small reception desk to collect his key and wallet from the safe. In front of him stood a young American couple; the man looked well made, and had a hint of New York in his accent.”

Key:   was    neutral alternative    alternative verb    power-verb

Note: although was teeming could have been changed to teemed, my intuition told me that teeming has a more continuous feel to it.

©   Stef Mcdaid   2010








To catch it in a sort of special picture:


The Was Demon - by author Rebecca Hamilton http://rebecca-hamilton.com/ 

“Was” is one my “flag words”. When it pops up, I’m always exploring why. Can it be removed? Sometimes, was indicated a passive construction, such as: The hat was worn by the lady. To make the sentence active (and fix the subject of the sentence) we’d say “The lady wore a hat.”

Sometimes, it’s a matter of sentence subject. In this case, the woman was the subject of the sentence. What if it were the hat? Then the was wouldn’t be so bad, right? Well, perhaps more can be done to improve though. Which is why I say was is a flag word for me.
Maybe I’d say, “The hat on the lady’s head flopped to one side.” Surely, if the hat is important enough to be the subject, we could pay it a little more mind.


Let’s look at more examples.
“She was sad.”
“She felt sad.”
Both are weak. The subject of the sentence is correct, but we are still distanced from the character. Step inside her shoes. How does “sad” effect her?
“She cried.”
It’s simple, but it could work. Usually with emotion we want more though.
“Tears slipped from her eyes, trickled down her cheek, and plunged from her chin onto her jeans.”
Do we really need all that? Can’t say, it’s out of context. Maybe you just need she cried. Maybe you need something in between. Maybe you need more. But this shows you how to bring the story life on the page by finding ways to cut “was”.


Here’s another example:
“The vase was on the table.”
“The vase sat on the table.”
Both are weak. I often see words like sat and felt being used to fix “was”. If only it were that easy! 


You can make descriptions active. Not that you need to every time, of course.
Consider this:
“The flowers in the vase on the table drooped from lack of water and too much sunlight.”
Not only is the vase on the table now, it has drooping flowers. We have characterization (the character isn’t watering her flowers) and ambiance (the room is often full of a lot of natural light) So much better than: “There was a vase on the table with flowers. Mary wasn’t the flower-watering type of person. The room had a lot of natural sunlight.” (wouldn’t you say?)


Add the word “was” to your word find list. Open your creative eye in your mind and see how you can bring your prose to life by getting rid of was.


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12 comments:

  1. So I just did a quick check on my current WIP and found 300 plus in 15,000 words. An edit is called for, I think.

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  2. Actually, that's not such a high count. Remember; 'was' often works okay - just look for any opportunities to sharpen the piece as you check them through. Don't get carried away!

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  3. Oh my goodness. I'm going to become obsessed with this, I know it. I went on a tear removing "that" from my writing when someone pointed out how frequently (and unnecessarily) it was (*gasp*) used, and I have a sneaking suspicion this will be my new "that!"

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  4. haha! -- well, don't get carried away; it is a rookie myth that "was" is passive, but if you can replace it with an active alternative it makes sense (and reduce the incidence in a particular paragraph if high) -- but when writing first draft it's kind of a useful "place holder", if you get my drift...

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  5. Pet hate: From the song: I wish I was in Carrickfergus.

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  6. 'Was' & 'That' are my two nemesis words. Thank you for posting directions on how to create a 'cheat sheet' of sorts!!

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  7. Great tips and creative post title (it made me laugh)!
    I'll make sure to spot these when I do editing.

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  8. Excellent post. I was happy to read it..no, wait....I smiled when I read this. -K

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  9. Going over my current project,the number of was...es is amazing. It's challenging rewording to remove was!

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