Every six weeks I submit a packet of writing to my Spalding MFA professor. She then sends the packet back to me with margin notations and summary notes. Many of my mistakes are common to writers, so I thought I’d call your attention to them in a week of editing tips. Though I try not to censor myself when I’m writing, I find these errors happening a lot less frequently not that I am aware of them. I think that’s half the battle.

Today, let’s talk about was, were, and other variations of the “state of being” verb. “Was” and “were” are my downfalls, my fallback verbs. My professor’s comment was that she felt sleepy reading a series of these on the page. I can’t blame her. If you are using passive verbs, I guarantee you there is a way to have a stronger, more powerful sentence using active verbs. Here are some simple examples.

Passive: I was running from the madman with the knife.

Active: I ran from the madman with knife.

I’d much rather be active than passive when running from a madman.


Passive: The wrought iron fence was decorated with flowers and vines.

Active: Iron flowers and vines suffocated the metal fence.

Take out the passive verb, add in a verb that fits the tone of your story, and suddenly that boring fence comes alive.


Passive: The car is driving down the road.

Active: The tires chew up the road.

That same car that dawdled on the road is now speeding down the road.


Passive: I became overwhelmed by a sea of grief.

Active: A sea of grief overwhelmed me.

A little reordering and an active verb can go a long way.


“To be” verbs:

am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been, become, became

Most people won’t notice how much they are abusing the “to be” verb. Try using the Find/Highlight option in Word to check how often you are using them. You may be surprised to see how much better your work is once you rid it of these tired words.