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.