Today I’ll pick a passage from Ian McEwan’s Black Dogs to talk about. I really wanted to do something from McEwan, because he is considered the quintessential example of clean, clear writing for our time. I’ve read many of his books (including the more famous ones), but I only own two of the lesser known ones, which is why I’ve chosen this book. Let’s get to our rule.
Rule 2: Simple past tense is better than past progressive (or even past perfect).
This builds upon Rule 1 (Avoid repetition). Recall that past progressive tense takes the form “was [verb]ing.” If you overuse this tense, you will naturally repeat the word “was” in ever sentence. This gets monotonous and tedious to read. But there is another, possibly more important reason to minimize past progressive. It isn’t quite passive voice, but it makes all actions passive.
Mary was throwing the ball. And? It feels like there must be something else happening at the same time that is more important. Mary threw the ball. That shows the action and brings it into focus. This rule might be the loosest of all that we examine, because there are so many instances where avoiding a certain tense makes the prose awkward.
You must do what is necessary, but my suggestion is to edit every “was” out of the prose first and only put it back in if absolutely necessary. If you keep making excuses because you are too lazy to figure out how to edit it out, you can trick yourself into thinking the tense was necessary when it actually wasn’t. Don’t be lazy.
Now on to the passage:
I was the one who was startled. She was watching me, slightly amused, as I began to apologize for the interruption.
She said, ‘…’ She did not have the strength to move against my disbelief. The afternoon was at an end.
I was trying again to apologize for my rudeness, and she spoke over me. Her tone was light enough, but it could well have been that she was offended.
(I edited out the one sentence that is spoken with “…” because speech follows a different set of rules than prose.)
Notice that about half of the uses of “was” come from the past progressive tense and the other half are simple past tense where “was” is the verb. This makes it a bit trickier to analyze. Also note how grating the repetition of that word becomes by the end. In 6 sentences, the word “was” appears 7 times. The rule exists for exactly this reason.
I’ll first point out that both places where he uses past progressive seem necessary, because it is chained to another action happening simultaneously. But honestly, it is hard to imagine why converting it to simple past tense doesn’t just make it better: She watched me, slightly amused, as I began to apologize for the interruption. Or: I tried again to apologize for my rudeness, and she spoke over me.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, the past progressive is truly important to emphasize the simultaneity. Then why keep “was” as the main verb in the simple past tense sentences? The middle part makes sense in terms of Golden Rule 1. He uses longer, complex sentences on either side, so he wants two simple declarative statements in the middle for contrast in flow.
For example, something like “Because the afternoon neared its end, she did not have the strength to move against my disbelief” flows too much like the other sentences for contrast and alters the meaning slightly. On the other hand, that one change breaks up the “was” enough that maybe all the other ones can stay.
Another simple fix is to change the last part: but it could well have been that I had offended her. The only downside I see to this is so subtle that it doesn’t outweigh the overwhelming repetition in my mind. One could argue that this last use of “was” keeps the style consistent because of the previous ones. If this is the case, change the earlier ones as well!
I hate to say this, but I think this is a passage that slipped through. When you write a book, there is too much to edit for editors and writers to catch everything. Even the best of the best have places that can be tweaked. My guess is that Black Dogs is around 75,000 words. There are probably 50 or so of these rules. You do the math.
In any case, I’ll write my change here in full, so you can decide for yourself. Maybe you like the original better.
I was the one who was startled. She watched me, slightly amused, as I began to apologize for the interruption.
She said, ‘…’ Because the afternoon neared its end, she did not have the strength to move against my disbelief.
I tried again to apologize for my rudeness, and she spoke over me. Her tone was light enough, but it could well have been that I had offended her.