Thursday, July 25, 2013

Taboo Words with Guest Author Lois Winston

Welcome back, author and agent Lois Winston! If you follow my blog, you know that Lois has been here before. (If you missed her previous entries, check them out here and here). Today Lois addresses a grammatical issue - but hold on! It's interesting, and important. ~ Sheila

Taboo Words

By Lois Winston

No, this guest blog isn’t about what Paula Dean said, nor does it have anything to do with George Carlin’s seven words you can’t say on TV. I’m talking about the words writers can’t use—all forms of the verb “to be.”

Say what? Since when?

Well, not really. But it is a myth that is pervasive among many writing communities. When I first began writing, I entered quite a few writing contests sponsored by local chapters of a national genre organization. Very often the judges (both published and unpublished writers) would circle every “was” in the entry and write in large capital letters -- PASSIVE VOICE.  Somewhere at some time in this organization, someone had told many of its members that “was” is a no-no.  Editors like action verbs.  “Was,” along with its brothers and sisters (is, am, are, been, were) is passive voice and a surefire way to a rejection letter.

Passive voice is when an action is acted upon the subject, rather than the subject acting.  The car was driven by Anna is a passive sentence.  Anna drove the car is an active sentence.  However, Anna was happy to drive the car is not a passive sentence.  Anna is expressing emotion.  She is acting, rather than being acted upon.  Likewise, for I am happy, they are happy, he is happy, Anna and Patrick were happy, and she was happy. These are all active, not passive sentences. Of course, there are more interesting ways to write these sentence, but that’s a separate discussion.

One of the easiest ways to tell whether your sentence is active or passive is to analyze the position of the subject, verb, and direct object.  In active voice, the subject (the one performing the action) will come before the verb (the action), and the verb will come before the direct object (that which is being acted upon.)

There are instances, though, when passive voice is necessary to the unfolding of a story or better suited to the realism of the dialogue.  When we speak, we don’t first think whether our sentences are active or passive before uttering them.  We just speak them.  Manipulate a sentence to avoid passive voice in conversation, and you often transform snappy dialogue into stilted dialogue.
For example:  Billy ran into the house and cried, “Mom!  Come quick.  Snoopy was hit by a car!  This passage accurately illustrates the way a child might respond to a car hitting his dog.  Snoopy was hit by a car is a passive sentence because Snoopy is being acted upon by the car, but the child mentions Snoopy first because the dog’s welfare is uppermost in his mind.  Also, by placing the last sentence in passive voice, the author is actually ratcheting up the tension.  We don’t know until the very end exactly what hit Snoopy.  A stray baseball?  A nasty neighbor?  A falling tree limb?  Although A car hit Snoopy, is active voice, using it actually lessens the impact of the sentence.
Still squeamish about the use of “was” or its siblings?  After you’ve finished your manuscript, do a search of the words.  Check each sentence to see if you can rewrite it to avoid using a form of the “to be” verb.  If you can, and it doesn’t detract from the pace, dialogue, or meaning of the passage, do so.  If not, leave it.  Some “was” were meant to be.

More writing and publishing advice can be found in my ebook Top Ten Reasons Your Novel Is Rejected. Buy links can be found at:

BIO: Lois Winston is both an agent with the Ashley Grayson Literary Agency and the author of the critically acclaimed Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series. Assault With a Deadly Glue Gun, the first book in the series, received starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Booklist. Other books in the series include Death By Killer Mop Doll, Revenge of the Crafty Corpse, and the ebook novelette Crewel Intentions. Lois is also published in romance, romantic suspense, women’s fiction, and non-fiction under her own name and her Emma Carlyle pen name. Visit Lois at, visit Emma at, and visit Anastasia at the Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers blog: You can also follow Lois on Twitter @anasleuth.


  1. Lois, I for one, was happy to see and read your advice. Further, I am happy that Shelia decided to publish your essay. So, thank you both.

    1. Carl, I hope you'll some back to Write Here, Write Now, and am glad you found Lois's advice useful!

  2. Lois, One of the best articles I've read on active vs. passive voice. I will share it with my writers' group. Years ago when I lived in Austin, I had a writer friend declare war on the verb "was" and wrote an entire short story without using it. The story was awkward and difficult to read.

  3. Thanks so much, Carl! Glad you enjoyed the article.

    Kathleen, it's amazing to me how many writers fall into this trap. I wish I knew who first told writers never to use "was." I'd make her a character in my next novel and give her a gruesome death! ;-D

  4. When I was writing yesterday I cringed evey time I used "was." And I constantly struggle with active vs passive voice. So I am keeping this article for reference! Thank you!

    Now let's talk about alternating POV! lol

  5. LOL, Susie! I'll talk to Sheila about scheduling another blog post. Meanwhile, you might find TOP TEN REASONS YOUR NOVEL IS REJECTED helpful. ;-)

  6. A wonderful blog post. I'm passing this on to some writing buddies. I'd like to choke whoever it was who decided we couldn't use was in our writing. I'm such a non-conformist. I proudly use was, is, and all its siblings. I'd much rather write a smooth, clean sentence than to write something awkward that jerks the reader from the story.

  7. A writer after my own heart, E.! I don't think it's being a non-conformist to want to write non-awkward sentences. I think it's a sign of a mature writer who's not coerced by false advice.

  8. Great explanation of passive voice. I've had a copy editor go through one of my ms and zing me for using passive when the examples were not, and even a best-selling writer, who kindly read a chapter, said, Sorry, this isn't ready; there's too much passive voice. And she'd pointed to the uses of "was." Um, thanks, but, oh dear, there's nothing you can say to a well-established writer, so I left it at thank you. Maybe she'll read your post. Thanks.

  9. I forwarded this blog to a friend I've been trying to help. He wrote a book and is totally bummed because a well-known copy editor wouldn't even edit his book. I have explained, over and over, what he's doing wrong, but blogs like this one break it down.
    BTW, my pet peeve is HAD!

  10. Thanks for the reminders, Lois. This post was a good refresher. Appreciate it!

  11. This is a well-balanced discussion of the dreaded 'was' Lois, many thanks! It's sort of like eating chocolates: everything in moderation~

  12. Great article. Early in my writing I used "was" too much,for example: she was running to the door(instead of she ran); she was thinking about (she thought about). These seem to be easy places to remove "was". However, as you mentioned it is not always possible or even feasible to remove "was" and I wish contest judges would get this. I'm no longer entering contests because I don't think most first tier judges "get it".

  13. Great post, great advice, Lois. Thank you for the clear logic!
    I'm printing this one out.

  14. Thanks for the advice, Lois. It clearly helps writers understand what agents look for. I know your book on the subject will help clarify much more.

  15. This was great information!! My critique group has struggled with our was's and I'm sharing this information. Now I understand what makes it passive and active. Thank you for sharing...