I'm at the Write to Publish conference at Wheaton, feeling like one of the most
fortunate people alive. I love writers conferences almost as much as I love reading. We're talking serious love,
If you can go to a writer's conference this year, get
In the meantime, here's a bit of tippage on editing
that we discussed in one of my classes.
was, is, are
There was/there is/there are
He was/he is; she was/she is;
it was/it is
They were/they are
Highlight all eleven instances above and scan the document. "Was, were, is, and are" are
not passive words despite what people may tell you.
A sentence is passive when something is acted upon, rather
than acting on something else. So if I say, "The ball was kicked,"
I'm writing in a passive voice. It's better to be active—to show who is doing
the action. It's better to say, "James kicked the ball."
"There was a ball being kicked," is passive, as
well. But it's not the word "was" that makes the sentence passive. If
I say, "There was a man walking up the sidewalk," I'm not speaking in
a passive voice. The man is acting—he's walking.
So, if "was, were, is, and are" aren't passive
forms of the "to be" verb, why am I telling you to look for them?
Because you might be able to make the sentences stronger. Take the opportunity
to see if you can tighten the writing or make it more picturesque. If you don't
need to show the continuous action of the man walking up the sidewalk, you
might tighten the sentence by saying, "A man walked up the sidewalk,"
rather than, "was walking."
Or maybe you haven't put in a metaphor recently. You might
try, "The man, head down, charged up the sidewalk like a bull after a
matador." Or, instead of, "They were a half an hour late," you
might try, "They stumbled into the party half an hour late and
three-quarters of they way drunk." Look at your sentences that start with
"They were, she was, he was, it was, we were, I was," and see if you
can't make them more interesting and memorable. But please don't try to scrub
every "was" out of your manuscripts. It's a perfectly good word and
we need it.
Replace all weak adverbs and
adjectives with specific nouns and verbs.
I'm not saying to replace slow with sluggish because sluggish is more interesting. I'm not saying to
replace big with grandiose, because it sounds fancier. I'm not saying to replace one
adverb with a different adverb at all. I'm saying to get rid of the adverb or
adjective and make the noun or verb more specific.
Instead of saying, "he walked slowly" say, "He
limped." Or, "He shuffled." Maybe he strolled or he sauntered or
he plodded or he trudged. Each of those verbs paints a different picture,
whereas, "He walked slowly," doesn't paint any picture at all.
Your turn. Have you ever heard that "was" is
passive? What other advice have you heard that was wrong? Or share one quick
editing tip with us.