Use The Word Was

Use The Word Was

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I sat in a small metal chair on my narrow front porch. My computer, atop a bistro table. A coffee mug waited, full and ready. Each fingertip rested on a key.

I was writing.

Well, I was sort of writing.

I was sitting at a table. I did have my computer open and my coffee close. I was typing words. But I wasn’t, technically, writing.

I’d put an idea down, then stop, aware that what I’d just written wasn’t right. Wasn’t the way I knew I’d want it on a final draft. Why waste my time with a bad first draft when I can edit as I go? I thought. So I’d delete. Re-think. How can I say this better? I’d type some more. Get caught, again, by a writing “rule” I wasn’t following. I’d delete again. How can I get rid of that passive voice? I’d think. More re-writing. Then more typing, more stopping, more re-reading, more deleting. Over and over and over.

After a while, the words stopped coming.

I sat perfectly still, in writerly position, hands poised, as if I were some kind of literary performance artist, waiting patiently for a muse to drop a dollar of inspiration into my coffee cup.

Except she didn’t.

And time was ticking. Make it count, I told myself. But what I was really saying was Make it good.

We all know first drafts are rarely good. Yet somehow, I wanted mine to be. I wanted to write and edit at the same time and, in the end, be better off. But instead of having a terrible first draft with all my ideas out, I had three well written sentences and the rest of my ideas flitted up and away, out of reach, like butterflies on a warm summer day.

I don’t know where I first read it. Maybe it was a blog post or one of the writing books I’d skimmed when I first started getting serious about making my words public. It was some list for how to make your writing better.

At the top: don’t use the word ‘was.’

I’ve been writing for a bit now, and since I also edit other people’s words—I know a little about what makes an essay strong. I know to avoid passive voice, delete as many ‘that’s’ as possible, kill the adverbs. Show don’t tell.

But first drafts don't like rules.

First drafts like freedom.

Six months ago, I’d walked into our local library to pick up a book on hold. Cars filled the parking lot and I noticed the sign for the semi-annual book fair. I’d lived down the road from the library for almost eight years, but somehow I’d always missed the sale.  

Thrilled to have some time before preschool pick up, I wandered through boxes of poetry, gardening guides, and history books. I meandered past classics, new fiction, and discarded spines of child rearing books (which, I firmly believe, should come with a note explaining if the book was donated because the kids are grown and turned out alright or if the information inside was crap). During my wandering, very much by accident, I found a box of writing books. Fifty well-spent cents later, I held my own copy of Bird by Bird.  

Today, a friend mentioned the sale was going on again, and because I had the time, I drove up to the library, marched in through the automatic doors, passed the lobby area that radiates a hue of calming blue, and turned right at the magazine racks. I headed down the hallway toward a room I didn’t know existed until six months ago—the room with the writing books. Do they keep the same kinds of books in the same spots?

A smile of relief, yes. Style guides, generic instruction manuals, and a book I had on my Kindle—but really wanted to feel in my hands—laid in a cardboard box under a white sign taped to the wall labeled Writing.

On the short drive home, words started to snap together like legos, building sentence after sentence in my head. Later, when I had time, I sat down outside with my computer, coffee, and sunshine, ready to write.

But because active voice is better than passive, but I tend to speak in passive voice, I kept stopping each time I typed the word was. I’d start again, but then I’d use the word that. I’d stop to think my way around it. And please don’t even ask about the adverbs. Peaceful-ly, happi-ly, calm-ly. There were everywhere. Delete, delete, delete.

My writing time felt more like tripping or falling down time. My thoughts kept getting lost, stuck, frustrated, blocked. My words, my ideas wanted to come, but I was smacking them on the hand as soon as they showed up. No wonder they started to fly away to safety.  

Then, out of nowhere, like an exasperated coach, frustrated and fed up with an offensive line so worried about technique and looking at the rulebook they never even picked up the ball, I yelled at myself: Just use the word was!

And that!

And all the adverbs.

For goodness sake, just throw the damn football.

We know the first draft is supposed to be bad. But we don’t always give ourselves the tools and permission to make the first draft bad. We don’t make first draft rules.

Too often, my drafts stink because I’ve tried so very hard to write well, that I don’t capture the essence of what I really want to say. The heart of the essay didn’t want to come out for fear of being deleted. But if we don’t have a story, it doesn’t matter how well we use an active voice.

So here’s my new first draft rule: use the word was.

The paper is a safe place. Like a mother to a child, I want my first drafts to be a haven for all the words, all the ideas. There’s time for correction and instruction later. Right now, I just need to hear what I have to say.

Avoiding the word was is for after you’ve written.

Deleting that’s happen after your story is down on paper.

Eliminate the adverb when you’ve set your story aside for a few days and returned to it (for the third, fourth, forty-seventh time) and you’re able to thoughtfully ask: How can I convey this same thing through description, action, or dialogue—instead of telling the reader ‘she wrote badly’?

At that library sale six months ago, I found the hidden room with the writing books by accident. I spent precious child-free minutes exploring, perusing—wandering in the woods, so to speak. I might have left with nothing. Or missed the writing books completely. (Of course I could have also asked someone.)

But isn’t it grand to stumble upon the very thing you didn’t know you were looking for?


// Journaling Prompts //

What “rules” do I have a hard time not following in first drafts? (Need to figure this out? Try to write a first draft and see where you stop to correct yourself.)

What pressure do I put on my writing time that I may not be aware of (that I may need to change in order to write better/more in the long term)?

What are my expectations of a first draft?


// Writing prompts //


1.  Set a timer for 4, 8, or 10 minutes. Write the entire time. You may stop typing/writing to think, wiggle your fingers, stare out the window, but you may not delete or cross anything out. If you have a new train of thought and you’re writing by hand, make a “-----” and start your new thought on the next line. Same thing goes for typing, just make a double paragraph space and keep going. You are practicing getting your thoughts down. You are practicing not writing well.

Prompt: I get stuck when …

2. Write your own First Draft rule(s). Then, set the timer again and follow them.

Prompt: You are free

CNF 101: Dialogue

CNF 101: Dialogue

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