DIY Editing: ‘was’ and other has-beens

This is possibly the most common aspect I’ve seen editors complain about, and it’s one of the easiest to fix.

What is it?

Linking verbs. Being verbs. “Was” and “were”. These are verbs that, by themselves mean simply “this thing exists”: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, seems, etc.

A step beyond being verbs is the passive voice, in which the subject of the sentence is acted upon by the object. For the non-grammarians out there: Rather than “James hit the ball”, we have “The ball was hit by James”– which has even academic writers reaching for their trusty baseball bat. Often people will mistakenly use ‘passive voice’ as a blanket term for both these qualities. They’re related, and passive voice almost always involves a being verb, but they’re not the same thing.

What’s wrong with it?

On the surface, nothing– which is why it’s so hard to quit these words. They’re integral to academic and informative writing (like, for example, blog posts) because they’re very clear and straightforward. Problem is, these words lack ‘oomph’. Too many of them together will make prose feel bland and unexciting.

Let’s see it in action

With: She was standing on the pier.
Without: She stood on the pier.

With: He was tall.
Without: He dwarfed everyone else at the party.

With: Her eyes were green.
Without: Her green eyes swept the room.

With: The door was opened by Suzie.
Without: Suzie opened the door.

Taking out the being verb sometimes requires that we rearrange the sentence. It can be a bit of work, but typically this leaves us with stronger verbs and more vivid images.

When is it a good thing?

Some writers will tell you never to use these words, but I beg to differ. My rule of thumb is one or two linking verbs per page of manuscript, and with possibly more allowances for dialogue– because let’s face it, people use these words all the time when they speak, so eradicating them entirely is almost impossible.

Being verbs separate the reader from the action. When used carefully and sparingly, they create a sense of stillness, as opposed to the more driving urgency of more active verbs.

Even passive voice can be an effective tool when it’s used appropriately. For example:

  • When you want to obscure the person/thing acting on the object.
    The door was opened from the inside” rather than “Jim opened the door
  • When you want to to emphasize the person/thing being acted upon.
    “The cathedral was built by union laborers” rather than “Union laborers built the cathedral”
  • When the person/thing doing the acting is surprising (often the punchline of a joke).
    While crossing the street, I was struck down by a runaway tricycle

What can I do about it?

The easiest way to deal with linking verbs and passive tense is with a good old-fashioned Find/Replace (Ctrl+F on the keyboard) for was, and then another for were (or is/are, if you’re writing in the present tense). A lot of word processor programs will highlight all the instances and give you a tally of how often these are used– which is often way too much. At that point, it’s easy enough to go through them one at a time and decide whether they belong or whether those sentences would be better served by stronger verbs.


Is there a common writing problem you’d like to see strung up and shot? Do you know any other good uses for linking verbs? Do you think I’m way off?  Tell us about it in the comments!


6 thoughts on “DIY Editing: ‘was’ and other has-beens

  1. Pingback: David Speaks

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