Monday, December 18, 2017

Ax Those Crutchwords! The Worst Offender: Was

Good morning, lovely readers! I'm going to start a new series for authors, giving tips on editing for crutch words and passive voice, as I know this is something we all struggle with.

If you've ever read your writing and thought it sounded sub-par or unprofessional, but just didn't know how to fix it, chances are you're leaning on crutch words or using passive voice. I'll show you how to fix that.

The truth is that writers don't have enough of a science behind fixing this sort of thing. Sure, most of the really great writers out there stay away from crutch words and passive voice, but most of that is instinctual for them, after a lot of hours of writing and learning and honing.

Even most other authors you'll find may be able to tell you that something is lacking in your writing, but even they may not know exactly what it is or how to fix it. Or even if they can pinpoint it, it's hard for them (for any of us) to give actual, definable steps toward fixing our weak writing.

Saying, "Do it better," really doesn't help much. Especially newbie writers who really want to write better, but simply don't know how.

Here's where I'll start giving tips to help you out with this. Because there are many MANY offenders when it comes to crutch words, and they nearly always lead to passive voice. So if you cut out your crutch words, 99% of the passive voice in your writing automatically goes away. Isn't that amazing? And you get the added benefit of tighter, more grounded writing. The kind readers love to read and publishers love to publish.

We'll start with what I consider the worst offender of them all: WAS

Was is a word that is an integral part of the English language. You can't write a book without using the word was a few hundred times. It would be impossible.

There are many sentences in which the word is absolutely necessary, and that's fine. But this pesky little 3-letter word often makes its way into sentences where it doesn't belong, and serves absolutely no purpose, except perhaps to remove the reader a bit from the action, and that's never good.

Because was is such a huge problem in our writing, it can be used wrong in MANY ways. Below are some fixes for the most common over-uses I've found:

Fix #1: switch up your subject and object. Active voice happens when you use active verbs. By that, I mean specific verbs. Focus the sentence on the action, not on telling the audience what "was" going on. Switch the object and the subject, making the sentence more active:

Example 1: The breakfast was eaten by Erica.
Make Erica (the object) the subject. In other words, start the sentence with her and change the verb to compensate.

The Fix: Erica ate her breakfast. (Much stronger.)

Fix #2: Change the Object to an Active word or verb.

Example 1: She allowed them to believe Gabe was her protector.
The Fix: She allowed them to believe Gabe protected her.

This is a real sentence from Street Games, book 3. In this case, I want to get rid of the "was" without changing the structure of the sentence. So instead of "was her protector," I made "protector" the verb, changing it to protected. *Always focus on action verbs and the active voice will follow naturally.*

Example 2: There was a judgmental edge in her voice.
The Fix: A judgmental edge tinged her voice.

Example 3: It was mutilated beyond recognition.
The Fix: The killer mutilated it beyond recognition

Fix #3: Take Out the "Was" Clause Entirely
I find that often, if I start a sentence with "it was/he was/she was/etc.," I can simply cut those words and use a comma:

Example 1: Heidi tried to convince them she didn't need help. It was a hard sell, given the bruises on her face.
The Fix: Heidi tried to convince them she didn't need help. A hard sell, given the bruises on her face.

Forget what your English teacher taught you about sentence fragments. This is fiction. We're using a character's voice, which means we can use fragments stylistically if we want. Trust me, your readers won't notice or care.

Example 2: The box that was left on my stoop?
The Fix: The box left on my stoop?

Fix #4: Replace "was" with an Action Word:

Example #1: He was only a few feet away.
The Fix: He stood only a few feet away.
The Fix: He lounged only a few feet away.

Fix #5: Put the action word into the sentence and thereby combine things.

Example #1: Her daughter was only a few feet away. She was coloring in her color book.
The Fix: Her daughter sat only a few feet away, coloring in a book."  Or…
Her daughter colored only a few feet away from where [POV character] stood."

Fix #6: For a state of being, replace with an emotion or sensory word.

Example #1: She was relieved.
The Fix: "She felt relieved."

Example #2: The lobby was quiet tonight.
The Fix: The lobby sounded quiet tonight.

Example #3: His face was sad.
The Fix: His face looked sad.

Fix #7: Replace past-progressive tense with past tense.
Past progressive tense is usually "was" followed by an -ing verb (was singing, was bringing, was sleeping). Simplify it to plain old past tense.

Example #1: He was hearing the sound in his head.
The Fix: He heard the sound in his head.

Example #2: That word was written on your hotel room door.
The Fix: Someone wrote the word on your hotel room door.

Example #3: His voice sounded steady, but was so soft she was sure emotion was hiding there.
The Fix: His voice sounded steady, but so soft, emotion had to be hiding there.

Fix #8: Say the opposite:

Example #1: The luggage weighed little because it was empty.
The Fix: The luggage weighed little because nothing filled it.

Example #2: It's why I was so hesitant to do that.
The Fix: It's why I hesitated to do that.

Fix #9: Cut From Ends of Sentences:

Example #1: She had a feeling Cora would share the opinion no matter what Kyra’s answer was.
The Fix: She had a feeling Cora would share the opinion no matter what Kyra’s answer.

Fix #10: Find Better ways to say things:

Example #1: It was funny.
The Fix: She found it funny.

Example #2: He wouldn't know where the key was.
The Fix: He wouldn't know the key's location.

Example #3: He would be angry if that was the case.
The Fix: He would be angry if that turned out to be the case.

Fix #11: Change the whole sentence structure, focusing on the subject:

Example #1: By his tone of voice, he was freaking out about something.

Obviously lots of crutch words in this sentence, but the point of the sentence is his voice. If you ever get stuck—you know there are crutch words but can't figure out how to fix them—always ask yourself what the subject is. What's the point? In this case, it's that his VOICE (the subject) tells her he's freaking out. I changed it to this:

See how much tighter and concise that is? It's much easier for the reader to comprehend.

Fix #12: Substitute Synonyms as a last resort:

***Caution: If you're anything like me, you'll be tempted to replace "was" with "had." "Had" is another crutch word we'll be editing for in a later blog post. Resist the urge to replace one crutch word with another to get your "was" word count down. So you can use it, but not often.***

If we're being honest, this is the easy route. It's being lazy. Flex those writer muscles and find stronger ways to say things. Don't go with the path of least resistance and time consumption. I understand the temptation, but don't give in!

Last Resort Substitutions:
1. Had - this only works if what you're saying happened in the past.
Example: He was taken to the store.
The Fix: He had gone to the store.

2. Would/would be
Example: Gabe was going to be pissed.
The Fix: Gabe would be pissed.

3. Didn't
Example: Kyra was not sure what he wanted.
The Fix: Kyra didn't know what he wanted.

These examples tell you how to fix only this one crutch word. There are dozens more hiding in your writing and make it ooze with amateurishness and inexperience. Those words have to go if you want your writing to make it to the big leagues and brush shoulders with the heavy-hitters. 

Pick up my book, Editing for Crutch Words on Amazon for more tips and tricks to take your writing from okay to amazing! 

How about you? Is WAS a culprit in your writing?


  1. Excellent examples. Those help better than just saying take out 'was.'

  2. Hi Liesel - what a great post ... fun, interesting and informative - thanks for these notes - cheers Hilary

    1. Thanks so much, Hilary. Glad you liked them. And thanks for dropping by! ;D