Debunking Writing Myths: “Eliminate all WASes and HADs from Your Manuscript”
Eliminate ALL instances of was and had from your manuscript. Those are passive verbs, and that means they’re bad, bad, bad.
Sometimes, you need a good was or had to keep things coherent and easy to read.
In The Elements of Editing, Arthur Plotnik writes about one of the “Signs of Dysfunctional (Editor-Related) Compulsiveness: Holding to favorite rules of usage, whatever the effect on communication”:
A little Strunk and White is a dangerous thing. Some editors [or writers] are driven by a cursory reading of The Elements of Style to change such sentences as “the outcry was heard round the world” to “everyone in the world heard the outcry.” True, the active voice is generally more forceful, and a procession of passive constructions is a safe cure for insomnia. But the passive voice is a perfectly legitimate alternative when used for variety or to emphasize a key word in the sentence by making it the subject (e.g., “outcry” in the example above).
To give Strunk and White their due, here’s what The Elements of Style says about passive voice:
The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive:
I shall always remember my first trip to Boston.
This is much better than
My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.
The habitual use of active voice, however, makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative concerned principally with action but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard.
There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.
Dead leaves covered the ground.
Note . . . that when a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor.
I took a personal stand against this myth of writing with the opening lines of Love Remains:
- . . . . The sharks were circling.
. . . . Bobby Patterson had been at the party a total of three minutes. But half that time was all it took for the smell of fresh blood to circulate amongst the single women.
Which drew this “critique” from dear writer-friend Krista Phillips:
- Passive voice… Change to “The sharks circled.”
LOL. Sorry, just kidding. It’s fine, love it as a start, but you and I both know that in [a writing contest], those “by the book” critiquers would totally ding you on this! LOL
I’m half tempted to critique by the “rules” just to show how much it’s okay to break them sometimes! I mean, seriously, you used had and was BOTH in the next paragraph! What are you thinking!?! *grin*
I have to confess, before I was published, I most likely would have suggested the author of three such sentences, as the opening lines no less, revise them so that she wasn’t starting her manuscript off with three passive-verb sentences—in all seriousness and with the best of intentions. But, you see, I was one of those brainwashed unpublished writers who believed in “the rules.” I believed that everything said at every writers conference should be taken as gospel, written-in-stone rules; and as long as I followed the rules, I would get published.
Yes, an over-reliance/overuse of was and had is a sign of lazy writing—because it means you haven’t gone back to see if you can revise those sentences using stronger, more active, more descriptive language.
But what gets lost in a strict adherence to “following the rules” is good storytelling. And sometimes good storytelling requires wases and hads. Now, when I judge contest entries, I can tell which entrants have been to one too many writers conferences and worked with too many other unpublished writers as critique partners. Because instead of the sentence structure I had in my opening, I see something more like this:
- . . . . The sharks circled.
. . . . Bobby Patterson entered the party three minutes ago. But the smell of fresh blood circulated amongst the single women in half that time.
Doesn’t flow quite as well, does it?
To address the use of had . . .
The past perfect tense is used for an action already completed by the time of another past action (Jane hailed a cab after she had walked several blocks in the rain) or for an action already completed at some specific past time (By 8:30, Jane had walked two miles).
The Bedford Handbook (Diana Hacker)
This means that if your story is written in past tense and you have something that happened before the current action of the scene, you write about the previous event in the past-perfect tense:
- It had taken Zarah a couple of years to say anything to Kiki about how much it bothered her to have someone make a fuss over her whenever she was sick.
Have you ever read something which confused you about what was happening now and what had happened in the past in the story’s timeline? It’s probably because the author was too scared to use had to indicate a previous event in the timeline.
So how many wases and hads are okay?
One of the best things you can learn how to do for self-editing is to FIND ALL instances of something in the document and highlight them. In MS Word 2007, press CTRL+F or click on FIND in the top right of the HOME ribbon. Type was in the “Find what” box. Click on “More>>” in the bottom left corner of the box, then check “Find whole words only.” Then click on the “Find in” button and click on “Main Document.” It will tell you how many instances of was it found in the document. With the FIND window still open, click on the TEXT HIGHLIGHT COLOR button in the HOME ribbon (between the Change Case button and the Font Color button) and choose the color you want that word highlighted in throughout the document:
Do the same with wasn’t, were, weren’t, had, and hadn’t.
What you see in my example above is pushing it for how many someone can get away with . . . and I can get away with it a little more because I’m already multi-published (neener, neener, neener)—of course, if I’d had time to actually go back and revise Love Remains before I turned it in, I would have done this exercise and eliminated some of the wases and a lot of the hads.
Once you have was/were verbs (in one color) and had verbs (in a different color) highlighted, read through and see if you can reword the sentence with a more active form of the verb:
- The boom of Patrick’s voice reverberated through the house, though Zarah could not make out what he was saying.
- The boom of Patrick’s voice reverberated through the house, though Zarah could not make out his words.
Sometimes, with had it isn’t past present, it is actually indicating possession (She had a green purse) or necessity (She had to go to the grocery store). In those cases, see what other words you can substitute for those that mean the same thing (She carried a green purse or She needed to go to the grocery store).
You only want to see a few of these terms highlighted on each page. If you have several within one paragraph, you’re probably going to want to revise. (Dialogue, of course, is an exception, because you need to be true to the way people speak . . . to a point.)
What has your experience with this rule been? Do you ever get distracted by seeing was or had when you’re reading? Do you ever noticed convoluted sentences that pull you out of the story that could have been fixed by a good was or had?