September 14, 2013 by thefreshchuff
A quick and easy editing tip is to eliminate the words “was”, “had”, and “that” from your writing. These words separate the reader from the action of the sentence; eliminating them adds for more intimacy and immediacy.
After I’ve churned out my first draft, I’ll do a fancy Find-and-Replace in Microsoft Word that bolds each occurrence of whatever crutch word I’m battling: usually was, had, and that. Then I’ll print out the document, go outside with a notebook, and tackle each bolded word, tweaking, and rewriting, and staring at the page upside down until I’ve found a better way to express that particular thought.
Practical Application: The Elimination of “Was”
After the ‘Read More’ are a couple examples from one of the novels I’m working on, with every incidence of “was” bolded. My mission: to study every “was” and decide how I could best eliminate it, making my writing clearer and more creative. Setting yourself random tasks like this can jumpstart creativity: giving your mind a problem to solve, a restriction in which to work in, forces your brain into action. (A great tip for if you’ve been stuck staring at your Word document for hours, idly scrolling, occasionally making vague grunts.)
Okay. This is the beginning of a chapter in Book Three of my ~fantasy series~. A supernatural disaster hits the town, trapping my characters in their sleep, in their dreams; in nightmares of their own creation. It’s rough, and silly, and stop looking at me okay. Anyway. *cracks knuckles*
Charley was dreaming he was back in the bar, dancing with the girl from that night.
So my MC is having a dream. This sentence is weak, relying on “was” for two of its verbs. Here’s what I replaced it with:
His sleeping wanderings took Charley back to the Brew House, into the arms of the woman he’d danced with earlier that evening.
I mean, it’s pretentious, but serviceable for our purposes.
The Brew House was empty this late at night; all the chairs were upturned and scooted onto the tabletops, the door was locked, the lights turned out—save two or three illuminated over the dance floor, where a faint crackle of music still played.
Three uses of “was” (or variations thereof) within the same sentence makes me nervous. Every time you use “was” instead of a harder-working verb, you’re subtly pushing the reader a couple of inches away from the action.
The Brew House had long since emptied. All the chairs had been upturned and scooted onto the tabletops, the door locked, the lights turned out save two or three hanging low over the dance floor, where the crackle of music played on.
Unfortunately, I traded my “was” for “had” in this revision. You could go a step further, do something like this:
The Brew House had long since emptied, with all the chairs upturned and scooted onto the tabletops, the door locked, the lights turned out save two or three hanging low over the dance floor, where the crackle of music played on.
But that’s a pretty long sentence and needs to be broken up. (Remember, we’re not going for perfect right now; when you’re ripping out crutch words, you’re expected to wobble.)
Charley was entranced by the whispering music, the familiar dance partner. He was, for that sleepy, heady moment, happy.
And then something changed.
Now, saying “Charley was entranced” is a lazy way of showing the main character’s feelings. It gets the job done, gets the audience where they need to be, but in my rewrite, I decided to go a more scenic route:
The woman’s nose crinkled as she smiled, her face so close Charley could’ve counted her freckles. He shook his head and those freckles faded, and his heart pounded a little harder. They twirled in slow circles around the room, hands wandering, lips touching, their feet never fumbling or squashing any toes.
And then something changed.
The reader is more effectively drawn into a state of relaxation, sharing the main character’s lazy, dreamy sort of happiness, so when the twist comes, it wakes both Charley and the reader up. (Note: The stuff about freckles and stepping on feet is a call-back to something that happens earlier; references to a woman Charley is trying desperately not to think about. I know it seems random and unnecessary out of context. *cringe*)
With a shiver, the walls around Charley were darkened; the exaggerated glisten of the woman’s hair was dulled to something more realistic; and the happy, floating headiness that usually accompanied Charley’s dreams was ripped away, something far more substantive replacing it.
You could simply delete each bolded word and this sentence would be stronger. But the point of the elimination rewrite is to trigger creativity and force yourself to fight the temptation of vagueness and go into more detail.
With a shiver as if from great cold, the room around Charley underwent a subtle transformation: the furniture came into sharp focus, the hieroglyphs on the bottles and wall posters rearranged themselves into actual words. The exaggerated glisten of the woman’s hair dulled to something more realistic, and the happy, floating headiness that usually accompanied Charley’s dreams ripped away, replaced by something alarmingly more substantial.
See, that’s fine. I should’ve mentioned earlier that the words on the bottles and wall posters were scrambled and nonsensical, the gibberish of most written language in dreams, since we now see them changing. But that’s great; sometimes in this exercise, you’ll spontaneously create a detail you can go back and add, enriching your scene!
Charley looked around; he was suddenly quite aware of himself. He was still in the bar, on the dance floor, but the woman had disappeared. The lights were still on, the music was still playing, but outside the window he could see a storm crackling the night sky, and Charley felt so very himself, he had a hard time believing he was still asleep.
Whooooa, a lot of crutch words here, from “was” to all those damn “still”s. Take the basic idea of the moment and tweak it into something more immediate and detailed:
The woman disappeared. No door fluttered from her exit; Charley simply blinked, and hands once grazing hip closed on nothing but air. He turned in a circle, acutely aware of the rise and fall of his own chest. The music still played, but under its holler, Charley heard rumbling outside; pulling back the curtains, he found the sky had gone black. Rain splattered against the windows, spikes of silver lightning illuminated the rooftops, and Charley felt so very himself, he had a hard time believing he could possibly still be asleep.
This is still a little awkward (for example, I’m not crazy of the “pulling back the curtains, he found the sky had gone black”) but, the point is, it’s better than it was before. (Remember, It’s not just good we’re looking for, it’s good enough.)
But seriously, it’s okay if everything isn’t perfect. The point is, by taking out my passive “was” words, I’ve made the scene more intimate and immediate, and the exercise led to some creative new approaches for telling the story. This is an easy, quick way to breathe new life into your writing: just bold (or circle, or capitalize, or otherwise point out) your crutch words, examine each one in turn, and figure out a better way of putting that sentence together.
Try it! You might be surprised at the awesome alternatives you come up with.