Sundering the Gods

On the Eve of Snows,

come heavens or hells,

war will rage.

Second Devious Word, Part B

For this bit of babble on the wonder word known as “was/were” I will again harken back to an old short story I wrote, called the Bastard Thief. 3740 words, and wait for it… 78 uses of was! Woah! Yeah, 2% of the words are “was” or “were” and amazingly enough, very few are passive. So the question is, is this a problem? 

The trick in picking a paragraph was to find one that had the fewest additional errors so I could focus on “was”. Wait, wait, let’s try again.

Finding a paragraph with “was/were” and not an additional pile of problems took a while. There, killed a “was” and a “that”! Woohoo! Okay, so let’s take a gander at this passage. It’s painful.

The woman was still tending the boy, and people were paying attention to everything but him. He untied the pack, reached for the arrow, and removed it from the inside out. Four gold coins were pierced cleanly by the arrow. His life had been saved by an urchin’s chest and four gold coins. What kind of arrow was capable of this?

The most painful part of this is how simply the basic issue of was/were can be repaired. We also have two passives. 1: were pierced and 2: been saved. So, we want to clean those up, plus “had” is in there, another devious word we’ll tackle soon. The final "was", however, is a tricky one… let’s see.

The woman tended the boy and people paid attention to everything but him. He untied the pack, reached for the arrow and removed it from inside out. The arrow pierced four gold coins clean through. An urchin’s chest and four gold coins saved his life. What kind of arrow was capable of this?

The first three are the prime examples of was/were to be removed without hesitation when revising text, two essentially worthless ones, and a passive. Disgusting. But for example’s sake, I left the final "was" sitting there. Above we see just how easy it can be to replace was/were, a little more work to ditch the passive, and finally we reach the final “was” and think to ourselves: Hey, this "was" is okay. And in fact it is, okay. But is it good? Nah, absolutely not. So, how do I approach this particular “was” demolition?

First off, here is a how not to do it example — What kind of arrow could do this?

Here I’ve just replaced one devious word with another, “was” for “could”. That’s desperate and weak, LOL. 

What I’m going to do is a little different. After hemming and hawing for a good option, I got down to asking myself a question, a painfully obvious one: What would this character be thinking beyond this lame question? The character in question is Ûôlkov the Bastard Thief, so you might guess he is a greedy bloke. Well now, what is a greedy guy going to think when seeing this?

An arrow capable of piercing bone, flesh, and gold might be worth more than the coins it slew.

Ah! Now we’ve got a line with character, it doesn’t just do the job of saying wow what an arrow, it speaks to the personality of our POV character. Now to be honest, I would not simply delete the was/were in the original, but treat them like I did this final was. Don't just delete weakness, empower the prose. A more final version of this paragraph might look like this:

With the arrow removed the woman struggled to staunch the blood with strips of the boy’s tunic. The mob surged through the gate, fleeing, fighting, anything to stay alive; they paid him and the dying boy no mind.  Ûôlkov felt useless in the struggle to save the boy’s life, and with a moment of peace in the maelstrom he reached into his pack and grabbed the arrow. The head could’ve been decorative smoky-white glass, except it pierced four gold coins clean through. An urchin’s chest and four coins saved his life. An arrow capable of piercing bone, flesh, and gold might be worth more than the coins it slew.

So, there is a quick rewrite of what started out a rather weak piece of writing. The culprits are the red flags to look for: was and were. Now in all fairness to was/were, there are going to be places where getting rid of them is more headache than it’s worth, or they could be downright useful, and just getting rid of 75% of them will help the prose tremendously, but do a search for them and see if there isn’t an underlying weakness also in need of a fix.

The Second Devious Word

Your writing was weakened by the use of passives. 

Devious word number two is essential to language and writing, but, it is also a negative in many circumstances. First we will take a look at the most infamous of roles the word “was” plays: the passive. A dreaded notation in writing.  In at least one subsequent blog I will take a look at how “was” may identify weak spots without being passive. But first, the passive.

The opening sentence is passive because of “was weakened”. Passives weaken your writing, would be an active way to say the same thing. But what identifies passive? There are two keys to identification: a form of “to be” followed by a past participle, quite often made obvious by the -ed on its tail. “was weakened” is a classic example. What are the “to be” words?

am, are, being, has been, had been, have been, is, will be, will have been, was and were.

A large percentage of passives may be found simply searching for these and seeing if they are followed by an -ed word. Of course, there are many past participles which do not end in -ed. 

The bear was seen by the cat.

The cat saw the bear. 

Pretty simple, eh? Yeah, it seems that way. But I am going to hand you off to a great website that looks into passives in better detail, then we’ll discuss the trouble with passives in general.

Now, what’s the big deal with passives? I’m not going to bother with the technicals, the above website does a fabulous job on this topic, as well as describing when passives are actually a positive.

You will notice a running theme as I write more of these blog entries, not that words are wrong, but rather, some words are excellent red flags for weak writing. So it is with the passive. 

A passive sentence isn’t simply bad because it’s passive, it’s often bad because it points to a place where the writer got “lazy”, was in a hurry, was on a roll, couldn’t think of anything else, or missed an opportunity for something better. 

I went back into my writing a few years to find this lovely example of prose:

The street was filled with mingling peoples, mostly black skinned, but not all, and every one of them looked at each other as a total stranger.

Okay, so there is the passive staring at us: was filled. So it’s been years since I wrote this, and I want to go back and edit, easy peasy right?

Step 1: People mingled on the street, mostly black skinned, but not all, and every one of them looked at each other as a total stranger.

There! We killed that dang-gummed passive. Sucker didn’t have a wax cat’s chance in hell, ha! Well, that’s fine and dandy, but as I am revising this piece, I shouldn’t just look at the passive and blindly activate it.. err, make it active. Whatever. It’s a red flag, something to make me look at the surroundings closer. Hmm, do I really like this passage at all? it’s kind of conveying what I want, but not on the most forceful terms, even when active. So I might go ahead and do this:

Step 2: Multitudes mingled in the streets, mostly black skinned folk with dark hair and painted faces, but sprinkled in the throngs were a variety of shades. Not a soul looked like him, but he shared something with every last one: They looked on each other as complete strangers.

This is a quick example, not necessarily how I’d finish this bit of story, but it shows you what I like to do when I spot a red flag such as the passive this sentence started with. Use passives in your own writing to identify weak or lazy points in your work, and see if you can improve on the phrasing as a whole, rather than simply making a passive active.

Note: passives happen in writing, don’t sweat it in the first draft. That’s what revisions are for. As you work revisions, you will probably start writing fewer and fewer of them naturally anyhow.

The First Devious Word

There are many junk words that show up in fiction, that weaken the prose, and I am going to examine a few of my favorites.

In the beginning there was the word, and that word was good. No, that word was bad. I mean that. That is a devious word.

Take a quick look at the first sentence, and there sits the devious “that”, twice! They’re almost as horrible as exclamation marks! Maybe more so! Now let’s peruse a rewrite of this sentence.

Many junk words show up in fiction, weakening the prose, and I am going to examine a few of my favorites.

Read these sentences back to back, does one feel more active, more alive? People are accustomed to reading sentences with “that” all over the place, but still it behaves like a tiny pothole in the road of our reading. More often than not, “that” means little to nothing and can be dropped from a sentence without changing anything. That! is the definition of a junk or filler word, folks. Other times minor tweaks are required, on rare occasions “that” might be worth keeping, and in the best case scenario, rewriting to get rid of it will inspire a higher quality phrase.

The word’s use is habitual for many writers, you’ll see them in high end journalism and in very successful novels where it’s a waste of ink. I’ve seen cases where prodigious users of “that” can tighten their writing by (mostly) eliminating this word. The effect doesn’t end at “that”. While some may be deleted without making a single change, others require a minor rewrite to make things work. 

“There are many junk words that show up…” morphs into “Many junk words show up…” See the pacing difference? It doesn’t end at deleting “that”, “that”  points you to a weak bit of writing and shows you the way to improve your prose if you listen close. This will be a recurring theme with junk words… they aren’t simply junk, they can be lazy.

So, the next time you’re reading your writing, read for “that”… don’t just read, search and destroy the suckers. After a while, you’ll see them everywhere, from your writing and other people’s, and the next thing you know, you’ll start writing without them. Your writing will thank you.

And guess what! The above contains another devious word, can you spot what it was?

Background Art by Jon Gibbons

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