Posted by: oneyearbook | October 30, 2009

Was

Right now I’m obsessed with the word “was.” (And all the ‘to be’ offshoots – were, am, is, and so on.) Not obsessed in a good way, as in fascinated by; obsessed in a “Oh, God, this is word is hijacking and ruining my writing,” sort of way.

I’ve always known that using too many ‘to be’ verbs weakens writing. (I almost wrote “is supposed to make writing weak” and then I realized,  hello? That made the sentence weak.) Active verbs, visual verbs, emotional verbs, imaginative verbs; they all bring the writing to life. But two sources hammered this particular lesson into me recently – one, Susan Musgrave mentioned it during our classes; we did an exercise attempting to use active verbs with random nouns in a fresh way. I came up with “The canoes wrote cursive scribbles on the lake,” among other things.

And then this essay, at The Morning News, in which Alexander Chee writes about studying under Annie Dillard (jealous – I adore Pilgrim at Tinker Creek), plays the same note again: “You want vivid writing. How do we get vivid writing? Verbs, first. Precise verbs,” Chee quotes Dillard as saying. “Gerunds are lazy, you don’t have to make a decision and soon, everything is happening at the same time, pell-mell, chaos. Don’t do that.” Oops! I do that! I throw out -ings like they’re candy on Hallowe’en.

So my editing process – of stuff for my application, of the short story I just finished – has been filled with me furiously eradicating the dreaded ‘was.’ When it pops up I shoot it, like a farmer in Saskatchewan killing gophers. Pop! Dead. No more was.

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