1. Gazzola
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    Gazzola Member

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    Grammar Too many 'was/were' in my writting

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Gazzola, Jul 11, 2016.

    Hello everyone. I currently find myself writing too many phrases containing the words 'was' and 'were'. Since english is not my first language, I don't know if there's a name for this, but below is an example:

    A brunette who was wearing a casual dress and had a very good posture was writing in a small black notebook. Next to her were a blonde who was stuffing herself with chiffon cake and another brunette who had her hand raised and was about to poke the blonde's bulging cheek.​

    If I spend enough time and effort I eventually manage to rewrite paragraphs like this into something more readable, but it's frustrating to be stumped by something so simple. I used to have a similar problem with passive voice ("I was told that the window had been broken...") until I read about it in a blog.

    Is there a similar advice for too many 'was/were' in my writing?
     
  2. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    A lot of times, those words aren't needed. For example:
    However, using was/were isn't inherently wrong. Be sure to consider sentences within the context of what's around them. Maybe the sentences flow better with was/were when reading the entire passage. That's for you, the writer, (and possible some beta readers) to decide.
     
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  3. TWErvin2
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    TWErvin2 Contributing Member Contributor

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    If it's a first draft, don't be so concerned about it. Avoid 'was' and 'were' where you can, but get the story down.

    Then, in revision you can go back and alter the sentence structure.

    "A brunette who was wearing a casual dress and had a very good posture was writing in a small black notebook. Next to her were a blonde who was stuffing herself with chiffon cake and another brunette who had her hand raised and was about to poke the blonde's bulging cheek."

    could be for example:

    The brunette stood with good posture, wearing a casual dress. She scribbled quickly in a small black notebook. Next to her sat a blonde stuffing herself with chiffon cake. Another brunette, sitting to the blonde's right with her hand raised, straightened an index finger, preparing to poke the blonde's bulging cheek.

    That's a hasty example, trying to maintain your wording.

    Also, as was indicated, sometimes 'was' and 'were' are the right words for the job. Other times, you'll pick up the technique to change the sentences to avoid them. It may be easier to do it all at once, in a revision pass.

    Maybe read some novels and pay attention to how other writers have avoided using those words, and note where they did use them.
     
  4. Gazzola
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    Gazzola Member

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    Thank you for answering, both of you.

    thirdwind: I rewrote many paragraphs, but never thought that just dropping "who was" would be enough to do the job. It's actually a little frustrating how simple it was.

    TWErvin2: Comparing your example with mine and going over other instances of my writing where I had this problem, I noticed that it happens in places where I freeze the scene to describe multiple things. In this instance, the POV character arrived at the scene without the three women noticing, so I wanted to give his description of them before that happened and felt like that was only possible if I stopped time for a moment. However, in your example the description reads much better and, because the movements are small, it still feels possible for them to happen in the short time it would take for the women to notice him.

    Both: I will rewrite my text with your suggestions and see how it goes. Before posting I had read the first chapters of Sanderson, Butcher and Briggs to try to figure out how they did it, but seeing my own example rewritten makes it much easier to see where the problem is. Once again, thank you guys.
     
  5. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Think of the verb/noun/adjective/adverb without the auxiliary verb. It's easier with verbs: "was wearing" become, 'wore'; "was writing" becomes, 'wrote'

    You can do the same with nouns, adverbs and adjectives. "Had a very good posture" becomes, 'Stood with the grace of a swan.'

    Like @TWErvin2 demonstrates, trade the thing you are saying using the verb to be, with something else that says the same thing.
     
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  6. Gazzola
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    Gazzola Member

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    Hey GingerCoffee, thank you for answering.

    I tried changing 'was wearing' to 'wore', but it didn't feel right. Because I'm writing in the simple past, when I read a verb in that tense I think of an action that just happened and is done. So if the main character says 'a brunette wore a casual dress', I don't think of him describing her clothes, but of him saying she was naked and just pulled on that dress. I know this is probably just me, because on chapter 1 of Steelheart, Sanderson has a similar phrase ("I wore a loose leather jacket and jeans (...)") to describe what the main character is currently wearing and it feels fine to me, but when I do the same it feels off. I'm still trying to figure out why.

    As for the auxiliary verbs, I'll work on it. Now that you pointed to me that it's not just 'was/were', but 'to be' that's the problem I noticed that they usually come appear after I write a 'who' or 'where', which are unnecessary. I should probably work on removing those two first.
     
  7. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Those were examples, not necessarily substitutes you would use.

    Let's look at your sentences:

    A brunette who was wearing a casual dress and had a very good posture was writing in a small black notebook.​
    I don't quite understand your complaint but, never mind that. @TWErvin2 suggested:
    The brunette stood with good posture, wearing a casual dress. She scribbled quickly in a small black notebook.
    Another option:
    Writing in a small black notebook stood a brunette, good posture, wearing a casual dress.
    Next sentence:
    Next to her were a blonde who was stuffing herself with chiffon cake and another brunette who had her hand raised and was about to poke the blonde's bulging cheek.​
    @TWErvin2's suggestion:
    Next to her sat a blonde stuffing herself with chiffon cake. Another brunette, sitting to the blonde's right with her hand raised, straightened an index finger, preparing to poke the blonde's bulging cheek.

    Seems adequate.

    I guess I'm missing what your issue is?
     
  8. Gazzola
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    Gazzola Member

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    My issue was with simple past 'wore', which you had suggested using instead of 'was wearing'. I didn't think it was wrong, since I've seem it used like that many times before, but for some reason it didn't work for me in this particular instance. I was just nit picking, trying to figure out why I didn't like it.

    Your first option of the first sentence and the fix for the second sentence are what I wanted to write but didn't manage to even after I rewrote this passage to many times. Breaking the phrases in two and dropping the 'who was' like you did was the solution.
     
  9. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    He noticed three women, a blonde and two brunettes. One brunette wore a casual dress, and sat straight-backed, writing in a small black notebook. The other had her hand poised as if to poke the bulging cheek of the blonde, who was stuffing her face with chiffon cake.

    I've taken a few liberties with your wording; "a very good posture" is something I wouldn't expect to see except in a ballet school report; and stuffing her face just feels more natural.
    And I think it's important to make it clear that it's from the MC's POV, rather than it being omniscient third person. Note that poking the blonde's cheek isn't something the MC knows about yet; he can guess the brunette's intention from her hand position, but it is just a guess.
     
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  10. Gazzola
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    Gazzola Member

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    Thanks you shadowfax. There are a few paragraphs before this that make it obvious that it's a third person limited, but now that you mentioned it and I checked back, the way I wrote this passage makes it seem I shifted to omniscient. I'll fix it.

    The brunette sits very straight on her chair because she's had a strict grandmother for etiquette teacher. That's why when the protagonist sees her, the thinks she has "very good posture". She has the proper lady role in this group. In this instance, would "very good posture" be fine, or do you think it I should change it anyway because its jarring?
     
  11. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Everybody's rewriting so I join in, with the goal of minimum change:

    A brunette in a casual dress sat with an upright posture, writing in a small black notebook. Next to her were a blonde stuffing herself with chiffon cake and another brunette with her hand raised, about to poke the blonde's bulging cheek.
     
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  12. Gazzola
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    Welcome to the party ChickenFreak.
    Your rewrite proves once again my problem with past continuous is silly. You replaced 'was sitting' with 'sat' and it still looks fine.
     
  13. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    1/ If the preceding paragraphs have made it clear it's from the MC's POV, then it's merely because this excerpt was taken out of context...I included that first sentence to give it that context, so I don't know, without reading the whole piece, if it's needed.

    2/ As I said, "very good posture" is the sort of thing I'd expect in a school report; it's not the way I'd think, or describe it in normal life. You might talk about a man (especially an elderly ex-soldier) as having a back that was ramrod-straight. If the first brunette is the "proper lady" you might describe her as looking as if she had a "stick up her ass/arse", to imply both the erect posture AND an appearance of being very strict in her expectations about behaviour; the sort of woman who'd disapprove of somebody with unpolished shoes. Otherwise, I'd stick with having her sit very upright.
     
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  14. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    By George, I think you've got it! :D
     

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