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Was and Had Everywhere

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Philip Overby, Oct 20, 2013.

  1. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

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    Recently I've been looking over my work and thinking, "Boy, I sure do use 'was' and 'had' a lot." I chalk it up to first draft blues and think about how I'm going to cut all these instances out later. I'm thinking of adverbs to cut (curiously, seriously, slowly) and making sure I don't use 'then' too often.

    I read parts of four different books last night. I flipped to random pages and found multiple instances of using adverbs, was, had, and other common "don't do this" advice I read.

    These writers amongst them have sold millions of books, have won multiple awards, and have been lauded for their stories throughout the world.

    I found out why this advice doesn't matter anymore. These writers are good storytellers, have engaging characters, and inventive worlds. That's why they can do this and no one cries foul.

    I get that using "was" over and over again is usually what people suggest not to do. Find a more active verb when you can. But, yeah, 'was' is all over the place in a lot of books that I greatly admire. And to me, it hasn't changed my enjoyment of any of these stories whatsoever.

    So my question is, does it really matter if you have these so-called "no no"s in your writing if you are telling a compelling story?

    I'll go ahead and answer my own question for myself: no. Does this mean I'm going to leave every single was and had in my work from here on out? No, again. However, I do think some people belabor these points too much when the real goal is to create an immersive story.
     
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2013
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  2. GeekDavid

    GeekDavid Auror

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    If it sells, it worked. :)
     
  3. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Yeah, this comes down to writers sometimes being hyperfocused on these technical details and not focused enough on engaging story-telling. As you said, you can find a number of very good books on the shelves that use adverbs, and use was and had, and so on. Writing an engaging story should be the focus. If you can find places where you can help the engagement by eliminating these words, do so, but there are also plenty of times where removing such a word has no net effect, or may even render a sentence awkward. Don't apply an absolute rule that says you have to eliminate these words.
     
  4. Nihal

    Nihal Vala

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    They should be removed if they're getting in the way of the story, if they're breaking the flow and turning the reading into a boring, tiresome task. But if it's working, why on earth should you remove them? For the sake of following "rules"? I'm with you, the answer is "no".

    I believe these advices exist to help writers to see common mistakes that are otherwise invisible to us. They should be followed as long they make sense and help to improve the text; once they make no difference or even harm the mood you wished to give to a certain passage they should be disregarded.

    P.s: ^Ninja'd. Hah!
     
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  5. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    Honestly, I feel some sentences read awkwardly if you remove "had". If I were to turn "She had shot him" to "She shot him", for example, you would not realize that the shooting took place before the scene in question. "Had" works great if you're writing in past tense and want to communicate something happening further into the past.
     
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  6. Guru Coyote

    Guru Coyote Archmage

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    One thing I learned about all those advices: It can be a fun exercise to try and follow them. I recently took up the habit of avoiding words ending in -ing. (hehehe)
    The fact that I tend to start out writing sentences that way, and then try to find a version to write it without the -ing makes me think very hard about what I really want to say.
    Also great fun is the effort to reduce sentences to their minimum. Avoid redundancies and the lot.

    My Iron Pen X entry though... is a showcase in taking it too far. Some of those sentences feel broken now that I re-read it, and many would have been more concise had I left in the offending parts.

    Which, in a way, is my point here. Following those rules/advice to their end and seeing what comes of it is a good experience. It broadens my understanding of the written language.
    And, at times it can hurt my appreciation of the works of others.... I've had moments reading best-selling books when I actually cringed at the repetition of a minor word in two consecutive sentences. One can take awareness too far.
     
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  7. Guru Coyote

    Guru Coyote Archmage

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    "I had a feeling that I had been using too many words ending on 'ing' and that it was weakening my writing. Maybe it was true. So here I am, wishing I had been listening to my feeling."
     
  8. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    Story trumps all. However, superfluous use of "was, had,-ly" can weaken prose. I'm a believer in the idea of using the best possible word, or way of phrasing. Sometimes this means using those "was, had,-ly" words. Making the proper choices can, at times, make the difference between engaging a reader or causing disinterest. The application of this thinking however, swings both ways.

    I'm not a fan of adverbs & weak verbs. But, that's the style I've adopted for my own writing. It works for me. Still, I've read many stories, written in manners different from my own, that are exceptional. Like the OP, I was so immersed by the storytelling skill, the words choices flew by, unnoticed.

    After story & clarity, the most important consideration is making sure the reader doesn't notice your writing. If you can pull those three elements off, how you do so doesn't matter.
     
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2013
  9. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

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    That's what I was trying to get across in the OP, T. Allen. That while I'll still strive to use the best possible words I can, I'm not going to go through my manuscript sniping every single time I used was or had just so those words don't exist anymore. If they work for the flow, then I'm happy with them. I'm recently become really interested in the Scene-Sequel technique to storytelling. While I'm not following the format in a rigid manner, I'm still focusing on each scene meaning something (providing characterization, advancing the plot, establishing the world, hopefully all at once) instead of worrying with how many times I've used was or were.

    I'm still not a huge fan of adverbs either, but I find myself using them now and again without them hurting my soul like they formerly did. They're still very rare (the "-ly" variety anyway) for me though.
     
  10. Guy

    Guy Inkling

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    No. Writing advice forbidding the use of a part of speech is some of the dumbest advice I've ever seen. All I can figure is what they mean is don't overuse certain things, but if that's their intent their wording is horrible, especially considering this advice is supposedly coming from writers. You don't want to overuse anything. You don't want to overuse exclamation points, but they have their purpose and there are times when they're needed. Like you, I've noticed that published authors all violate the rules, openly, flagrantly and repeatedly (dear God, look at all them adverbs!). So I've come to the conclusion that the people dispensing the advice don't know what they're talking about. Like a lot of things in life, the conventional wisdom and the reality are two different things.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 20, 2013
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  11. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    I think it's part of the learning experience.

    When I started out I had no idea about the was/had thing or the thing with the adverbs. I'm still not entirely sure what weak and strong verbs are, but I'm getting there. Same with the whole "show, don't tell" business. The theories behind these rules are sound - at least to my mind.

    I think getting these advice thrown at you from every angle is part of learning the ropes here. The important thing isn't to follow these rules but to understand them and know what their purpose is. That way you will know when to follow them and when to go your own way. Breaking these rules just because world-famous best-selling authors do isn't the same thing as breaking them because it makes your story better.
     
  12. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    It's a step in developing your own style. I see no point in telling someone how they must write. I also see little value in discounting a method without experimenting. I'd rather try an approach, like limiting "had & that" for instance, and then decide if it works for my writing or not. I personally have found hundreds of unnecessary words, and cut them, by scouring my prose for useless jottings of the word "that".

    A friend of mine once received a critique that he should never use the word "was" because it is passive. Of course this is ludicrous advice. I can't imagine writing a novel length work without using "was"...ever. Now, it can be an indication of passive writing, that is true. But, it isn't always passive. This is the same for "that, had, adverbs, to be verbs", & a number of other elements. They can be problems in some writings. In others, they disappear or even enhance storytelling.

    A further example & a question...dialogue. When people speak normally, they use modifiers because they're succinct & efficient. Does writing dialogue without adverbs sound realistic?
     
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2013
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  13. GeekDavid

    GeekDavid Auror

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    Depends on the character. I will sometimes deliberately drop contractions if I want to make a character sound formal or learned. :)
     
  14. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    Yes. I'm specifically referring to adverb use though. Primarily because I avoid them in normal prose but don't restrict their use in dialogue. My reasoning... It's the way people talk. Dialogue is different than narrative.
     
  15. GeekDavid

    GeekDavid Auror

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    True. One of the marks (in my mind) of sloppy writing is when the characters sound as though they're writing to each other instead of talking.
     
  16. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    I had the same experience a while ago. I notice "rules" being broking left and right in every book I read. GOT has lots of "was" but it doesn't matter. I'll echo it's all about the story telling. One of my favorite authors Neil Gaiman did a kind of head hop at the end of a chapter. He had a series of one sentence paragraphs that were from a different character's POV. I stopped when I read that and said, "Hey that's not good form," but it didn't matter. I was engaged.

    I treat all words that you are supposed to avoid like adverbs, avoid when possible, but sometimes necessary. To not use a word, ever, is like throwing a tool out of your toolbox. I have a program that flags words that may be problematic, and I go through and make sure each use is deliberate and exactly what I need.
     
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  17. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Yes, it makes sense to use all of the tool at your disposal. Things like head-hopping and tense shifts and the like don't bother me when handled skillfully. I'm not sure why so many writers (aspiring writers in particular) get hung up on that sort of thing. I think part of it is that writers are inherently insecure about their own work, and if you can pretend there is a right or wrong way to do things, and moreover that you know the right way, then it must provide a certain level of comfort.
     
  18. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    Yes. I think that's probably true in general. I also believe it takes a certain level of experience to not only know when to employ facets of craft (like intentional head hopping) but also how...which brings us to your point on handling it skillfully. Just like anything, knowing the fundamentals is necessary for breaking them for effect.

    It makes sense, as people are developing style and learning fundamentals to steer clear of common pitfalls though. That being said, conscious experimentation should be encouraged.
     
  19. Guy

    Guy Inkling

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    I think another possibility is they don't understand that creative activities are not the same as other activities. In many other areas you can follow step-by-step instructions and reach a finished product, but in creative areas that approach just doesn't work. Trying to write a good story by adhering to rules and procedures results in the literary equivalent of a paint-by-numbers.
     
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  20. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

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    I love that metaphor, Guy. :D You're right on, IMO.
     
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