Irritating Pricks . . . or How to Improve Your Writing with a Single Word

WAS is a hell of a word, an irritating prick potent in its venomous strike, cunning in its assassin’s delivery, its uncouth presence a tenacious plague of passive mediocrity.

And it can make or break your writing same as it makes or breaks entire novels.

I believe every writer’s writing would improve a thousand fold if the only fault they mend is deleting Was from their writing vocabulary in all its poisonous forms and restructure their sentences.

But we all live in sin.

I spent over 25 years of my writing life ignorant of the Was poison infecting my written musings. Only a handful of years ago did I realize the error of my ways, and boy the epiphany shocked me something fierce.

Ever get a tattoo during which the jabbing needle pierces a little too deep and pokes the bone, jolting you into the roots of your snapping teeth?

Yup, that’s the feeling, that bone-buzzing startlement you never forget because your vibrating marrow won’t let you.

Now, though, after years of habitual penance, I recognize Was for what it is: the asymptomatic carrier of the disease that is bad writing.

And I guarantee if you apply my advice your writing will improve immeasurably.

(*take note of this rare case of the -ly adverb, a plague in its own right that clumps while festering into awful ‘Purple Prose’ ((read anything Patrick Rothfuss; his wonderful poetic writing is rampant with awful -ly adverbs)), trumping better description . . . or perhaps I’m just lazy).

The commandment of excellent writing is Show Don’t Tell, and it’s always best to lead by example.

Sometimes the fix is simple:

1. He was standing in the middle of the courtyard.

-versus

2. He stood in the middle of the courtyard.

Or:

1. She was watching the startled rooks burst from the copse.

-versus

2. She watched the startled rooks burst from the copse.

Simple considering all you do is remove Was and change the tense of the verb without losing any meaning.

But sometimes you need to fix it with a little more pep in your descriptive step:

1. Marci looked at the recliner. She was tired. She yawned and stretched.

-versus

2. Marci stretched into a yawning Y while eyeballing the comfy recliner awaiting her nap.

Or:

1. Dennis was wearing . . . (insert passive description of clothes) a straw hat and a white button-down shirt.

-versus

2. Dennis wore . . . (insert active description of clothes) a tilted straw hat one strong breeze from blowing off his balding head, and a tight white shirt gripping round the girth of his impressive paunch, its buttons protesting containment.

And same goes for nature as with people:

1. It was a dark and stormy night.

-versus

2. Staccatos of lightning knifed the gloom between rumbles of thunder.

Or:

1. The rain was pouring down.

-versus

2. The rain poured in thick white sheets.

*we also removed ‘down’ because how else would it pour, up? Unless it did so or sideways while riding tumultuous gusts of whipping winds.

Successful writers are not immune to the passive Was infection either.

Terry Goodkind, author of the Sword of Truth fantasy series. This is taken from his novel Siege of Stone (paperback), Chapter 16, page 133, last sentence of first paragraph:

But the new heart was strong, his gift was restored, and Nathan was a wizard again.

-That’s 3 Was’s (Wases? Wasai?) in one friggin sentence! And heck with that, because just performing the simple operation of two Was deletions spruces this sentence:

But the new heart was strong, his gift restored, and Nathan a wizard again.

Not the best fix, mind, but much better. And we’re unfinished with Mr. Yeard because on same page, first sentence of fourth paragraph:

Elsa wore a purple silk robe, which was comfortable rather than extravagant.

-Here we’ll perform Was deletion with a little restructuring while omitting needless words:

Elsa wore a purple silk robe, more comfortable than extravagant.

Stephen King, his every book a best-seller, author of you name it. This is taken from his novel 11.22.63 (hardback), Chapter 7, page 155, third paragraph, second sentence:

Groundfog was rising up from the dips and valleys, and the drizzle was thickening into rain.

-Seriously? Come on, King, you’re . . . well, you!

Groundfog fermented from the dips and valleys. The drizzle thickened into rain.

Here’s another faux pas from Mr. King, same novel, page 134, paragraph 8, end of first sentence:

I began to hear laughter.

-Hey, Stevie, not for nothing but you either hear something or you don’t. I’ve never in all my 40 years of hearing ever ‘began’ hearing anything. Began standing? Sure. Began running? Why not. Because these are physical actions that can be interrupted. But began hearing? I. Don’t. Think. So. Bub. Because hearing doesn’t work like that.

And here’s one more of King’s writing slips, same novel, page 347, paragraph 10 and first two sentences of 11:

Above us, the thudding stopped abruptly.

She took hold of my arm and began to shake it. Her eyes were eating up her face.

-I hate abruptly (also its suddenly cousin). Not only is it a needless word (everything stops ‘abruptly’ because that’s the definition of stop. If it doesn’t then it’s slowing, not stopping), but it’s also a poisonous -ly adverb. I’ll cut Stevieboi some slack on the ‘began to shake it’ bit because although it’s a poor choice of words, shaking something can be a physical action interrupted. But ‘Her eyes were eating up her face’? That’s where the slack ends for better writing:

Above us, the thudding stopped.

She gripped my arm and shook it, her eyes startled blooms of panic.

Don’t get me wrong, Stephen King knows a thing or two about a thing or two when it comes to writing. If a publisher told him his next novel must take place in a closed room with nothing in it but he could populate it with as few or many people as he wants, Stevieboi would pen another best-seller: because he’s a master crafter of character.

Even when his plots suck and are full of holes, his characters putty those gaps because they’re always interesting and well developed. No one-dimensional stereotypes live in King’s imaginary worlds, and it’s this gift that has elevated him into legendary status as a writer despite sometimes lacking in other story areas (he doesn’t plot so much as propose a What if? scenario then writes around it; he explains as much in his book On Writing, the latter half of which is disappointing for its vague writing advice though it’s first half — basically an autobiography — provides a compelling read and is well worth the buy and time despite his writing advice being pared down to: read and write a lot. And: bad writers can become good writers but never great writers.). Though his gift of character creation doesn’t make him infallible. He’s a writing machine but he’s also only human.

I advise you to read Terry Goodkind’s Siege of Stone, and Stephen King’s 11.22.63, not because they’re good (King’s story is there and very entertaining, Terry’s not so much to the point of awful; seriously, Siege of Stone reads like the first draft of a fifth grader, and the poor dialogue is so plot-direct obvious it’s laugh out loud on top of cringe. Mr. Yeard’s two-dimensional characters recite backstory and plot points to each other for the sake of his ‘dumb’ readers like most people exchange Hello’s and Goodbye’s, making Siege of Stone a perfect lesson on how not to write good dialogue, while King’s 11.22.63 is quite the opposite when it comes to writing natural dialogue despite Was and passive voice infecting every other sentence) but because both novels are chock full of the irritating Was plague as well a plethora of other writing no-no’s, and you learn a great deal by reading bad novels more than you do good ones. Others’ mistakes become glares to your reading scrutiny, and this helps ensure you don’t repeat them in your own writing because they irritate the crap out of you while you suffer through them over and again in another’s work you’re trying to enjoy.

Imagine watching your favorite movie . . . but with someone sitting beside you and pricking you with a needle every five minutes. Sure you may still enjoy the movie, but you won’t forget those irritating pricks. Reading bad novels is similar, but with the author sitting beside you and pricking you with their bad writing needle every few pages — or worse, every few paragraphs.

If you do nothing else but remove the irritating prick of Was from your writing vocabulary, it may not pen you a best-seller but you’ll achieve multiple rungs higher on the long ladder of writing success because removing Was isn’t just the deletion of a single word but a valuable lesson teaching you to restructure your sentences while tightening your writing.

My opinion holds at 99% when it comes to removing Was, because there are rare times when there’s no better way for conveying sound writing.

Sometimes a despondent character soliloquies: I was wrong about her.

Or through dialogue: “I was hungry,” Elmer said, shrugging, “so I stole me a sammich.”

Or just plain ol’ because you want to: Staring across the littered battlefield, Gavin understood one of the truest pains in life was knowing most men never got to choose how they died no matter what they planned or how well they planned it.

And here’s a bonus treat for all you good doggies: Had is the second foul banana to Was.

1. Mark had a lopsided beret.

-versus

2. Mark wore a lopsided beret.

Or:

1. Sally had long black hair.

-versus

2. Long black hair framed Sally’s face made all the paler by contrast.

But just as with Was, Had also has its place: I had to do it. “I had to do it!” He had to do it.

Start with the Law of Never, not because you should never use Was but because this will develop in you the novice habit of striving for better writing by instinct. Soon your discerning eye will spot Was in every novel you read and every story you write. You’ll grow to loathe its poisonous presence, you’ll question how such awful writing ever made it to publishing, and confidence in your own writing will soar because you’ll know your improved writing is better by comparison to those already in print.

I guarantee it.

And if you’re a sadist, or just a slow learner, then keep a needle in your hand while reading. Every time Was poisons a sentence, give yourself a prick courtesy of the author’s bad writing. Then remember those irritating pricks while you write so you don’t repeat them, and your potential readers will thank you for it.

Happy writing!

adronjsmitley.blogspot.com

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Blog for writers on everything plot, character, and story structure architecture at: adronjsmitley.blogspot.com

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Adron J. Smitley

Blog for writers on everything plot, character, and story structure architecture at: adronjsmitley.blogspot.com