Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Who Says 'Was' is a Bad Word?

Some writers are like religious fundamentalists.

They read, or hear someone discuss a rule they’ve heard about, and it becomes gospel. It doesn’t have to come from Strunk and White to start them red penciling whole paragraphs of a novel. Just mention “rule” and it immediately becomes scripture, part of a revised Talmud, and you couldn’t pay them to violate it.

They forget rules are intended to be guides and not a new version of the Quran. Rules are not absolute law. Generally there’s good reasoning behind them and it pays to abide by them. There are also times when they can and should be violated. And, if you should break one of these rules, you won’t have the Taliban pursuing you (though some critic may lambast you).

Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing are observed with ritual devotion by some of these scriveners. I love Leonard’s work. I think he’s a great stylist and the rules are a sound selection. But, with little effort, I’m sure you can find many admirable writers who’ve broken some of these rules at one time or another. In fact, if you read a lot of Elmore’s stories (as I have) you’ll see even he occasionally drifts from the canon. This isn’t blasphemy. Leonard sometimes spoke with tongue in cheek and was aware of Somerset Maugham’s dictum: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

The Elements of Style, among other scriptures, urges us to use the active voice. It does not say “always.” A passive sentence isn’t always bad. Knowing how and when to use them makes the difference.

We are given lists of words to avoid in our writing and some believe it means they should never be used. Wrong. There is no such thing as a bad word. It all depends on how and when you use them.

One of those words you’ll find on many lists is “was,” a perfectly good Old English verb. It’s on the list because it’s been deemed passive. As mentioned above, that isn’t always a bad thing. Opening a novel by Elmore Leonard to a random page I found he used the word “was” 10 times. Sometimes there just isn’t another word to substitute.


Where words like “was” become bad is when we allow them to become habits weakening our writing. When we get lazy and fail to revise without using all our senses that’s the real deal-breaker. Don’t just blindly follow rules because they exist. Use common sense and experimentation to see why they’ve become standard. Your writing will improve and your readers will thank you. 

14 comments:

  1. Excellent points, John. Knowing how and when to ignore rules to enhance the readers experience is key to good writing. Thanks for the post.

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    1. Thanks, Gavin. I have nothing against rules, but believe we need to be clear on why we're following them.

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  2. Exactly. Trying not to use to be (was) verbs can make you try for a better way to say it, but as you said, sometimes that's the only. Also look out for your "favorites" any words you use too oftn.

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    1. We all have those 'favorites' and sometimes it's difficult to catch them all. Thanks for commenting, Marilyn.

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  3. John, I love the expression "Rules were made to be broken" (a passive sentence) and, as you so aptly put it, that's definitely true in writing. I think the important thing to remember is that we should know the rules before we decide whether or not to break them.
    Great post!

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    1. Thanks, Pat. Some people are better at breaking rules than others. It's definitely good to know them before stepping over the edge.

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  4. I have to say "Ditto" to Pat's comment. She took the words right out of my mouth. Sometimes nothing will work except a broken rule.
    Marja McGraw

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  5. Great post, John. I agree 100%. I'm sure we can all name lots of artists who "broke the rules" and actually became famous because they did. We all just need to relax a bit.

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    1. Thanks, Jan. Probably an equal number who broke the rules and went down in infamy.

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  6. Well put, John. Here how I feel about rules.
    . . .we need rules in all things or we’d have chaos.
    . . .rules can be bent or broken when a situation warrants it.
    . . .rules should be stored by an open window so they can be easily tossed out when necessary.
    . . .there are only two absolute rules in writing: (1) whatever works best, and (2) never name a character Earl.

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    1. Not sure about that second one, Earl. But I do agree on the first. Thanks for commenting.

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  7. I think the people who are making the rules need to write more short stories instead. ;-)

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    1. Not a bad idea, Bobbi. Thanks for commenting.

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