Verbs of Being and the Past Progressive Tense


Everyone gets told to “show, don’t tell” at some point in their education. Today I want to talk about an equally important (and related) piece of advice that rarely gets taught. In fact, many people go through their whole lives and don’t even notice this. Until you’re told to look for it, you might miss it entirely, because in speech it sounds so natural.

If you write something in past tense, then you will undoubtedly use the word “was.”

Example: I was in my room reading a book, when there was a knock on my door.

Take a moment and answer the question: does this sound fine to you? Before we begin, I need to point out that sometimes “was” is the best option. There is no need to blindly expunge all verbs of being out of your writing. The thing I look for is whether something is happening. “To be” is static. If someone is doing something in the sentence, why not make them do it with the appropriate verb? In other words, make the action happen!

First off, replacing “was” with the active verb brings the action of the sentence more vividly to the reader’s imagination (i.e. it shows the action rather than telling the action). Also, it naturally varies the sentences. If most of your sentences read “blah was blah,” then it gets boring.

A related issue is the past progressive tense. This takes the form “was verb-ing.” I was sitting in my room. I was reading a book. Then I heard that someone was knocking on my door. If you are already on the lookout for “was,” this should be no problem to detect. Sometimes it is subtle to identify. In the example, “I was in my room reading” uses past progressive, but I split the infinitive to make it harder to catch. Rearranging makes this clearer: I was reading in my room.

The past progressive suffers from the same types of problems as before. It gets repetitive, and it implies inaction.

There are two main ways I use to get rid of these constructs. First, I identify the active verb. Second, I add details. Strangely, these passive expressions almost always appear when you haven’t sufficiently described the scene. In the first part of the example sentence, the active verb was “read.” In the second part, the active verb was “knock.” One way to fix the sentence is to add some detail and use the right verbs.

Edited example: I sat down in my room, excited to crack open Annie Dillard’s The Living, when someone knocked on my door.

Part of producing clear, vivid writing involves a long, tedious process of weeding these constructs out wherever possible. There exists unprofessional writing (like this blog post) which maybe goes through one or two revisions. But most of professional quality writing is rewriting and editing. I think it is easy to forget how dedicated you have to be to get everything just right. Your first draft will have these problems, and that’s fine. You can’t be worried about that upfront or else you will never write anything.

I want to show an example to illustrate that great writers are constantly aware of the problems listed in this post. I love Annie Dillard and I am reading The Living right now. I’ll use a random number generator to pick a page (to emphasize I didn’t tailor the example) and give you the first full paragraph.

Eustace and Clare worked together often, and hunted the hills and fished the river together, and smoked their pipes, resting their eyes on the wide river or the drowsing fields. Resolution burned in Eustace and made him grave and sincere; gaiety and hopefulness animated Clare and blew him about. Clare’s view that a man could enjoy this life eased Eustace’s urgency to succeed, and moderated his mental habit of measuring himself, his material gains and losses, against the doubt and dread of his parents, and Minta’s parents …

(OK, I ended it early because it was long). Notice the verbs: worked, hunted, fished, smoked, resting, burned, made, animated, blew, enjoy, eased, moderated, … There isn’t one verb of being or past progressive tense in there. A sad state of affairs is that sometimes a mark of great writing is that you don’t notice it. Now that I’ve taken the time to examine a paragraph like this, I can’t even imagine the effort that went into it. Yet most people, including myself, will normally read through it without a second thought.

I thought hard about what to contrast this with, because I don’t have much on my bookshelves that I could be confident made the errors I listed above. I chose Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

There were glaring lights inside, a few tired salesgirls among a spread of deserted counters, and the screaming of a phonograph record being played for a lone, listless customer in a corner. The music swallowed the sharp edges of Taggart’s voice: he asked for paper tissues in a tone which implied that the salesgirl was responsible for his cold. The girl turned to the counter behind her, but turned back once to glance swiftly at his face. She took a packed, but stopped, hesitating, studying him with peculiar curiosity…She gasped like a child at a burst of firecrackers; she was looking at him with a glance …

I have to say, it isn’t terrible. The first sentence is in past progressive, and we get one “was” in the middle. I couldn’t resist adding the next sentence after the dialogue which had a “was looking.” That first sentence could be altered, and then it would be a less awkward tense change to the simple past tense:

The lights glared inside. He saw a few tired salesgirls among a spread of deserted counters and heard the screaming of a phonograph record being played for a lone, listless customer in a corner.

I admit it isn’t much better, but that’s part of the point of this post. Sometimes it takes a great deal of effort to get even one sentence to be clear and active and to fit stylistically with everything else. The difference between a good writer and a great writer is often that the great writer has the stamina and dedication to question the strength of every word and sentence. They don’t settle for fixing most of them. Anyway, I have no idea how this turned into a pep talk being great, so I’ll end here.

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