By John May
Whenever I finish a chapter, I hunt for certain words and types of words with my word processor and then try to kill as many of the varmints as I can. In this installment, we’ll look at the first three, was, were, and had:
Was and were: In Techniques of the Selling Writer, one of the most acclaimed and bestselling books on craft ever, Dwight Swain holds that to be verbs, which describe a static state of existence, rob a story of vividness and action. “Your story stands still in any sentence that hangs on such a verb. Nothing happens. The situation just is, and, for its duration your reader must in effect mark time, shifting wearily from one foot to the other while he waits for the story to get back under way. ‘She was unhappy’ may be true enough but where does it go? What’s ‘she’ doing? Active verbs are what you need, verbs that show something happening.”
Had: Again from Swain, “Worst of all the to be’s forms is the past perfect tense. You can recognize it by the word had—a red flag of danger in your story every time. For had describes not just a static state, but a static state in the past. Each had makes your story jerk, because it jars your reader out of the present action and throws him into past history. …eliminate as many as possible, within the bounds of common sense.”
I agree wholeheartedly with Swain that to be verbs suck the life out of passages that involve immediate action or dialogue. I once hired a professional editor to look a couple of chapters in a much earlier version of my novel. She claims extensive use of passive voice is an excellent way to get a manuscript rejected. I know I invariably like my action and dialogue scenes better after I round up the to be varmints and slaughter them.
However, when writing introspection, scene setting, or historical exposition, I believe to be’s, while mostly undesirable, are not always life suckers. In this group, to be verbs are a bit less intrusive (there’s no immediate action to interrupt) and, since the purpose can be to give history, sometimes even necessary. So, while I try hard to avoid to be verbs wherever possible, when writing a passage that involves any kind of immediate action or dialogue, I really really really really really try hard to avoid them.
Of course, if some reason, you want your story or a particular passage to feel sleepy and meandering, then passive verbs are the ones of choice (note how much faster and stronger the last clause reads in the active form: “then choose passive verbs”). As I’m currently writing a work of commercial fiction I hope to publish, I can’t afford to sound sleepy and meandering very often.
In the next installment, we’ll look at some other less than desirable words or word types.