“Was” and the Variation of Sentence Structure (Past Progressive vs. Passive Voice)

Recently, I began mentoring a friend who wants to write a book. Since I am also planning a writing workshop for the kids at C5LA, who I will be visiting this July at Camp Paintrock in Wyoming, I’ve decided to pull together some tips and suggestions for novice writers.

I plan to make this into a series, with a focus on a different nuance of writing each post. In the future, I hope to touch on topics such as telling facts versus showing emotions, maintaining POV, and the difference between good grammar and writing well, to name just a few. I will also gladly take suggestions, so feel free to post your ideas below.

And now on to the first topic: That dirty word ‘was’ and the indicators of passive voice.

When I began taking writing classes back in ‘06, one of the first bad habits my instructor pointed out to me was my constant use of the word ‘was.’ In my first workshop, he circled ‘was’ five times in just two paragraphs. Since forms of ‘to be’ are a common indicator of passive voice, I got confused as to why my professor had circled all those iterations. I began believing that ‘was’ automatically indicated passive voice, and therefore needed to be changed.

Of course, that’s simply not true. While the various forms of ‘to be’ are a common indicator of passive voice, their presence is not the definition. Instead, passive voice results from switching the subject with the object of a sentence such that the action is performed on the object, rather than by the subject: “I hit the ball” (active), becomes ‘The ball was hit by me” (passive). For a detailed explanation of passive versus active voice, see this wonderful article by Grammar Girl.

So where were all those ornery ‘was’s coming from? The answer revolves around the use of the past progressive tense versus simple past tenseThe real irony is that I didn’t realize this until I started reading the first chapter of my friend’s story, and discovered the exact same phenomenon my teacher pointed out to me years ago: ‘was’ sentences everywhere. I tried to explain to my friend about passive versus active voice, and realized that I didn’t completely understand it myself. That, in turn, led me to discover the real culprit – past progressive tense, which uses ‘was’ + verb-ing as it’s basic structure. The student became the teacher, only to become the student once again.

(Another big irony is that the progressive tense felt ‘active’ to me, which is why I confused it with the issue of active versus passive voice.)

I don’t want to get too deep into a discussion of grammar or proper tense usage (Lord knows I’m no expert), but I will offer this advice to people who find their writing littered with any variation of ‘to be’: try combining the progressive clause (“He was calling for help”) with a simple tense clause (“He ran through the forest”). The resulting sentence, “He ran through the forest, calling for help,” eliminates the ‘was’ in the original sentence. It also provides an excellent opportunity to layer in additional details with minimal intrusion (“He ran through the forest, calling for help and screaming at the top of his voice.”)

Keep in mind that sentence variation is important, and that any excessive pattern is likely to lull your reader to sleep. Also, sometimes ‘to be’ is a perfectly acceptable. Just make sure it’s an informed decision. Is it progressive, or is it passive? Combined those progressives where you can, and rewrite those passives. And most importantly – keep writing, keep reading, and keep learning.

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About R Scott Boyer

Scott Boyer grew up in Santa Monica, CA and still resides in the Los Angeles area. Graduating from the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley in 1996, he started writing Bobby Ether And The Academy with the goal of blending YA fantasy with spiritual fiction. Nowadays, Scott splits his time between helping his father manage an insurance brokerage, playing with his Shepherd-mix rescue dog Patch, and writing the sequel to his first book, the soon to be released Bobby Ether and the Temple of Eternity.
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