This review a beta reader gave me changed my writing life forever: “I am not a major fan of the words "had' and "that" and eliminate them when possible."
He was reading my novel, The War Queen (before publication, still in its editing stage) and offered that suggestion. And then as he continued to review my book, he continued to prove to me exactly why I should remove as many "had, that, were, was" words as possible. The below sentences were pulled straight out of my novel, followed by the beta reader's suggestion:
A sweet faced girl was holding a tray of food.
“A sweet faced girl held a tray of food.”
She was hoping he had left without her.
She hoped he left without her.
I was stunned at the simple transformation. I then started on a path of, “I need to do this for my whole book!” And CTL-F on Microsoft Word became my godsend. I typed in the word “was” to find all 6,000 of them and then methodically analyzed each one to see if I HAD to have that word in the sentence (sometimes you do. Most times you don’t) and if I didn’t need the word, I figured out how to re-work the sentence without it. I did that for “was”, “had”, “were,” and “that.” And this is what happened:
ORIGINAL: The tattoo was their trademark.
RE-MADE: Their trademark tattoo smoked ribbons up his arm.
ORIGINAL: Her eyes were sympathetic
RE-MADE: Her eyes offered bandages.
ORIGINAL: His threats were promises
RE-MADE: His threats paralleled promises
4 reasons why you want to take as many “was, had, were, that” out of your writing:
1) Every word should matter in your story. So take out all the words that don’t matter. Most times, “was, were, had, that” don’t matter and they eat up valuable word count if you are trying to keep your novel slim - like me - because I tend to write 173,000 words on my 1st drafts.
2) Taking out those words force your writing into “active” voice, which is what publishers, agents, and readers want today.
3) It makes your sentences smoother and crisper to read.
4) It makes your sentences unique to YOUR writing style. In another blog I read somewhere (I read it in passing so I couldn’t tell you who wrote it otherwise I would link you to it), they said that someone got rejected by a literary agent, and the agent’s reply in that rejection said, “You have a good story, but what is unique about your sentences?”
Cut those words out with scissors, a razor blade, burn them with fire, file them down to nothing. Just make them go away.
DISCLAIMER: If you’ve ever read The maze runner, you will see that the author used “was, were, had, that” as his go-to words. And because he did, his writing style drove me nuts. Which is why I hate the book. But, he DID get published and they DID make a movie out of it. But as for me and myself, I have set a writing standard and that is to make my sentences as clean, crisp, and unique as possible.