Wordy Wednesday with Guest KD Collins!


The Evil Was

There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
-W. Somerset Maugham

If you’ve been writing for any length of time you’ve undoubtedly been told again and again what to do and what not to do until you can’t see straight. Sometimes what you’ve been told by one person probably directly conflicts what you’ve been told by someone else. And more than once you’ve probably felt like pulling your hair out in frustration. That’s okay. We’ve all been there.

Here’s the thing, the English language is messy. And, while it can be beautiful, at its core, it is an ugly beast. There are so many don’t do this unless this is true rules it’s no wonder people butcher it. And while there are some hard and fast rules that shouldn’t even be bent, never mind broken, there are others that you can forget even existed if that’s what works in your piece.

The rule in particular I want to talk about today is the dreaded was. I know you’ve been told over and over again to avoid was. It’s a weak word, it weakens your prose. This is true. Most of the time. Like most things in the English language, there are exceptions. If you have a sentence with the word was in it and you can replace it with any other word and not change the meaning of your sentence you should.

Ex: I was running down the street.
Better: I ran down the street.
Better still: I darted down the street.

You get the idea. Sometimes though if you replace the was, you change the meaning of the sentence.

Ex: She was beginning to like him.

In this case, you’re talking about an ongoing action so the ‘was beginning’ is appropriate. If you replace it with ‘she began to like him’ well, that just doesn’t sound right. And it talks about a completed action which changes the meaning of the sentence. See?

There are also the instances where you use was as the verb by itself in the sentence. Those can be harder to replace as you have to rewrite the whole sentence, and they shouldn’t always be. The point is, was is not evil. You can use was and it’s okay. I promise.

I saw someone tweet the other day that they had gotten rid of all but two uses of the word was in their entire book. All I could think  about was how many awkward sentences they must have just to achieve something that wasn’t necessary in the first place. While all these writing rules and guidelines are great places to start, don’t focus on sticking with them to the point that you kill your voice. And remember, rules are made to be broken. Until next time!


Kathleen Collins has an English Lit degree from Iowa State and used to edit for an epub. Her friends lovingly refer to her as the grammar queen. Lately when she’s not working for her day job at a local prosecutor’s office or spending time with her family, she’s working on her next book. Realm Walker, the first book in her urban fantasy series will be released from Carina Press this October. In the meantime you can see what she’s up to at her website www.kathleencollins.net


4 responses »

  1. *raucous applause*

    I know I get a little loose sometimes with the “was walking” construction when I can use the straight verb instead, but I’m good at killing them in my initial revisions and end up defending almost every one that’s left to my editor. She wants to change EVERY ONE to past tense, and I have to argue that “he’s not DONE cutting the cheese!” (or whatever). 🙂

    Thanks for the great post!

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