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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

"Was" is a novel-cidal maniac

I'm going to be honest: I've been editing a hell of a lot of books. Probably far exceeding the recommended daily allowance--enough that some nights my eyes are bleary, but even through the haze of half-vision, I can see some patterns. Which brings me to today's topic.

The letter "was". What's that? "Was" is not a letter of the alphabet? Oh. Sorry, I must've thought that because I've seen it so often lately. Fact is, "was" is killing many new manuscripts on a daily basis. It's a repeat offender--a serial sentence slow-downer.

I'll confess I'm also an overuser of The Letter Was, in some of my manuscripts. (Why only some, I cannot say.) We all have our pet words--mine are numerous, and include "just, really, so, only" and my alltime worst habit ever... "Well,". Still, if I had to name the #1 most overused word by novelists... The Letter Was. The funny thing about this word(letter!) is that we'll go along for a couple of pages without it appearing at all, and then bam! it shows up 6 or 7 times in a couple of sentences. And that's when it becomes a problem. It's a rare instance when the sentence can't be rewritten to exclude "was"--and nearly every time, the sentence becomes stronger, cleaner, more concise without it. (especially when "there was" is the culprit. Can always, always be cut.)

My solution as an editor--which I'm sure somewhat peeves my authors, and I know this because it once happened to me via a critique partner, and I didn't much like it at the time, either--is to use Word's Find/Replace feature, and turn every instance of The Letter Was into a highlighted Letter Was. (In the Find box, type was. In the Replace box, type was, then go below to the More tab, click it, and choose Format>Highlight. Whatever color you currently have chosen as your highlight color--that would be at the little paintbrush icon on your toolbar--will be brushed over all your Letter Wases when you hit Replace All.) This is helpful, because it really shows where the Wases have clustered for attack (a la mold spores). If you find you've really overused "was", you might consider also doing a Find/Replace for "were", which is, after all, the plural usage of the 27th letter.

The highlights are easily removed later, by either doing a reverse of the Find/Replace we did above (highlight is on the Find box instead) or--much simpler, go to Edit>Select All, and then on your little highlight paintbrush icon, choose No Highlight. Baddabing. No more highlights. (your editor will thank you for it, and if you're still querying that manuscript, it just might make the difference whether you get a contract or not. Really.)

Happy Tuesday.

Piper Denna
Romance is sexy!

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