The Case Against 'Was' or Why Lexical Density Matters

Martin Kanchev  
This blog explores the idea of Information density as it relates to creative writing. It also tries and, let's be honest here, probably fails to be a light, entertaining read.


I guess all good blog posts start off with a personal anecdote. Which makes sense, kind of. After all, nothing says 'well-thought-through, empirically backed, surely-not-just-individual-preference take here' quite like an argument from personal experience.

So here we go.

Some years ago—never mind how long precisely *wink, wink* *nudge, nudge*—I was in the middle of critiquing a piece on this very website when I discovered something. Cue ominous thunder and maniacal laughter.

While my discovery didn't quite warrant an ecstatic exclamation of "It's alive!", it did, in that moment, feel rather significant. For I had stumbled upon the concept of information density. Awakened by my fellow author's proclivity for the usage of the 'subject was adjective' construction in their descriptions, the concept quickly matured into a half-baked idea, which I, blindsided by its perceived brilliance, spent the next hour meticulously explaining to them.

Needless to say, the five-hundred-plus-word-barf-on-the-page comment wasn't well received and my otherwise flawless (yeah right, get a hold of yourself) crit evaluation tanked that month because of it. Figures.

But that whole debacle got me thinking. Why hadn't I heard anyone in the writing community talk of this? Turns out, I hadn't looked well enough. Apparently, what I had discovered, or more like stumbled upon, was the rather extensive topic of Lexical Density.

Ok, I thought, as I scrolled through the Wiki page, so this thing has a clinical name, fancy terms and even a formula. You know, for the math-inclined ones among us. My only issue with it was that it didn't seem to prescribe anything. It didn't give rules or tips. It just, kind of, measured stuff.

'BOO! Boring', I yelled at my computer screen.

This stuff was quite powerful. Surely one could use it to create a style guide for creative writing. Right?

So I got working.

The Case Against 'Was'

The cornerstone of my writing guide was a fairly basic premise. Namely, more information density is generally preferable to less information density.

Armed with this particular nugget of wisdom I decided to tackle my old nemesis. The 'subject was adjective' construction.

So, is there really something wrong with writing 'The castle was white'?

Let's analyse the sentence word for word. Disclaimer before you close out of this and start running for the woods: I won't be using any fancy terminology.

The — Necessitated by grammar. Conveys the idea that we are speaking of a particular thing rather than all things.

Castle — Key part of the sentence. Serves as the anchor to which the rest of the words connect.

White — Modifier. Adds some detail/ information not conveyed by the rest of the sentence.

Was — Coveys two pieces of information. Firstly, the idea of existence, and secondly the temporal aspect.

Alright, now what's so bad about 'was' in the example? At first glance, it appears to be doing stuff. Even twice as much stuff as any of the other words in the sentence. Does that mean 'was' is off the hook? Maybe it's 'the' that should be worried.

"Not so fast!" I say as I jump into frame.

The issue is that we are considering this in a vacuum. When such a sentence appears in a book it is always accompanied by... well obviously the rest of the book. And what that rest creates is context. Context that provides us with things like temporal and spatial references. I'm sure you can see where I'm going with this.

Within the context of a book, it is assumed that the events portrayed in a scene happen as the reader is reading them regardless of the tense used, unless specifically stated otherwise. We may accept that the story "has happened" but we experience it as it unfolds in front of us. So, assuming we're writing in past tense, the actual temporal aspect of 'was' in the sentence gets lost. Or it can be presumed. If we actually wanted to imprint the meaning of 'something in the past' we would need to shift tenses back and say 'The castle had been white'. In this sense, 'was' becomes... almost vestigial.

The second function of 'was', namely the idea of existence fares even worse. When a person reads, they know that what they are reading is a description. By definition, existence/being is a prerequisite. You'll never read the description of the vase in the corner which the author never imagined cause, you know, it doesn't exist.

When I read something like 'The castle was white' I want to exclaim, "No shit it was. How could it not be?" In fact, the usage of 'was' in the example sentence paradoxically only makes sense if we use a negation. 'The castle wasn't white.' "Oh, what was it then?"

Tying it back in

It turns out the premise of 'more information density is generally preferable' gets applied almost ubiquitously. In fact, it's so fundamental that I dare you to show me a creative writing tip that cannot be reduced to it.

Let's do some of the highlights:

Show don't tell — Telling is the least information-dense way of conveying a concept. You'll get the jist of it but none of the details. That, by the way, is also why it ends up being so much shorter than showing.

Strong vs. Weak verbs — We call a verb weak when it needs crutches (other words) to convey the same meaning a strong verb conveys. (Walked away quickly vs. Bolted away) A classical case of low information density and the reason why we get told to avoid it.

Concrete vs. Abstract language — Some words, 'lake, dog, car' are too general. In their attempt to cover a large concept they inevitably fall into the trap of low information density. Think about how they compare to 'Pug, Ferrari, etc.'

Short and to the point — Stephen King's famous 10% rule comes to mind here. Why would reducing the length of your work by a tenth be something to strive for? Information density.

Character development through dialogue — The idea being to use the "space" we dedicate for dialogue not only to convey what is being said but also who the person is that is saying it. Why? I think we all know the answer by now.

So don't use 'was'. It's lazy, bad writing and it's probably the reason why you get all those rejection letters. <—— See how I attempted to stir up some drama there, at the end. I hear good blogs do that too.

PS. I really wanted to end the post on 'Don't use 'was', be dense. Information dense that is.' but I didn't think the joke was very good.

19+ Comments


Was is a little workhorse of a word. It does the job without excessive augmentation—a statement of fact. Not pompous or flowery at all. Lexical density is a good thing, but it isn’t the only thing.

Mar-18 at 00:43


I completely agree. And you can usually jam ‘said’ into the same garbage bin as ‘was’.

Mar-18 at 01:03


Just a word of caution. I’ve seen writers on crit websites take the “Don’t use ‘was’” rule to such an extent that their sentences became overly convoluted. It made the story hard to parse out and a chore to read.

The thing is, simple words like “was” and “said” make reading a story easier. Overuse of these words can become distracting, and it’s something to keep in mind while writing, but in my opinion finding ways to replace these words / rephrase a sentence is end-level editing of a story.

And as far as agents caring about their overuse, I’m not sure I believe it. I’m in the middle of reading a series where the writer overuses “to be” to the extent that I started noticing it–a lot. I’m pretty sure a form of “to be” or “have” is used in every 3 sentences or less. It’s the Murderbot series by Martha Wells, and the first novella was not only a NYT bestseller and critically acclaimed, but also a Hugo and Nebula winner. And yeah, it’s a blast to read!

Mar-18 at 02:39


Very very true. I’ve experienced it here on CC. I had one critique partner whom I found incredibly knowledgeable except that she had declared war on ‘was’.

Because she was so expert otherwise, I didn’t question her at first – but when she rewrote my sentences to avoid ‘was’, I noticed how convoluted some of her versions were. I learned that it’s definitely possible to take it too far.

Mar-18 at 02:47


If I remember right, the consequence is basically inanimate objects oftentimes becoming as, or more active, than the actual characters. (The white castle stood / stretched / loomed against the morning’s horizon. Whispering of the slaughter soon to unfold, a chilly breeze brushed against the hero’s cheeks. The curved sword hung on his hip, waiting to be drawn. and so on…) :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

Mar-18 at 03:31


If they didn’t want me to use was they shouldna put it in the dictionary.

Mar-18 at 03:41


Ah yes, that’s a possible consequence, but my critique partner was obsessive about avoiding passive voice, too. That’s why she ended up turning the language into knots to avoid both!

Mar-18 at 03:43


I agree about the general concept that you should keep your writing density high. (I do wish the blog had been a bit higher and didn’t waffle!)

But if the blog is going to conduct a war on “was”, please give a solution. If you cut “was” from the given sentence, you get “The castle white”. That makes no sense. There needs to be nuance to the rule, and sometimes good old “was” is best.

And the blog contradicts itself. He admits that telling is shorter than showing, but then doesn’t acknowledge that the consequence of that is a lower density of information. If we just need to know the basics, it may be better to quickly tell us something, rather than expand on something of minor importance through showing.

Mar-18 at 08:33


I agree with this really - better to say “the white castle…” and then what it did to make it active. I see checking out your wases as a way to make descriptions active. It’ll be longer but it’ll be better, so I’m not sure it’s always about brevity. :thinking: Like all rules though, they’re made to be broken. Lose all uses of “was” (and passive voice) and the writing will come across as silly and awkward. I agree with above that there’s a reason it’s a word!

Mar-18 at 09:54


I can’t say I’ve come up against too many ‘was’ warriors, but as a beginner writer, I managed to tie myself into knots over several inconsequential issues, and I’ve seen others do the same. I’ve also seen something similar, in a writer who avoided all exposition. Their only technique for handling back story was to create a flashback. In every story, that writer would get me interested, only to unceremoniously chuck me out of the opening scene, into a flashback. It lost my interest every time. That experience taught me a great deal about creating solutions that were worse than the problem.

Mar-18 at 10:03


I did this!

I even used the phrase ‘declared war on’

Overall, I think it was (heh) a net positive but I’m letting it creep back in. I still look at each one suspiciously, though.

Mar-18 at 10:12


nothing wrong with the use of was… Something wrong with a dependency on the use of was though.

Like everything balance and harmony is required.

Mar-18 at 10:42


There’s no problem with using the word “was”. Too many writers in critique groups obsess over it an try to avoid it. In doing so, they construct very awkward sentences. All the bestselling writers I read have no problem using the word “was”.

The problem comes when you constantly construct repetitive sentences, as mentioned in the blog post. Variation is the key. A lot of writers in critique groups often try to avoid “was” because they mistakenly believe it’s passive, along with “were” and “had”. It can be, but it depends on the construction of the sentence.

People often seem to mistake past progressive for passive too because it has a “was” in it. For example: “he was throwing” or “she was wearing” They mistakenly flag it as passive and try to correct it to past simple: “he threw” “she wore”. But the point of past progressive is to convey motion and something happening in real time. It’s definitely not passive. Again, it’s a case of variation again. Use it when you need to but not too much.

Frankly, if you try to avoid “was” too much, it’s going to make your writing sound weird. I see people trying to avoid description because of it.

Mar-18 at 11:45


One of those internet trends. Remove was, then dump in acres of needless descriptions… (motive behind removing was is usually getting in descriptive verbs)

Density is nice, but if you start persecuting words to make your writing better, you may want to consider something higher up in the foodchain is wrong - like an unconvincing plot.

Strip “was” from a text, and watch the crits come in with far bigger problems, like “can’t relate”.

Will a sentence get sharper and powerful by removing “was” and using a precise verb instead? Sure. Will a TEXT be improved by stripping it of was? Nope. It will read like a breathless facade. Artistic if done well, but won’t “ring true” on an instinctive level.

Was is a form of “to be” - to exist. The backbone of conveying how things are. One of the most powerful communicators for realism. If nothing WAS in your scene, talk of winning an inch and losing a mile. It is far better to have a dozen extra “was” in your text than run short. Always err on the side of abundance on this one. You can take a few sentences feeling slow - even adds some breathing space from a relentless barrage of parsing. What you can’t take is the essence of your text not resonating.

In fact, one of my perception engineering tricks for compelling characters is to have a few defining “was” statements for the readers to “know”. Nobody has ever caught it. Works like magic.

Disclaimer: this is not to say don’t take opportunities to upgrade was to something useful if you spot it easily, but there’s no need to go hunting for them - if you didn’t spot them, they aren’t a problem. And definitely don’t succeed in removing them all - particularly for defining something - character traits being a biggie.

Mar-18 at 12:02


I agree that sentences using “was” can often be folded into more descriptive sentences for less total wordage and more density. (ex - “The knight strode into the white castle’s shadow” instead of “The castle was white. The knight strode into its shadow.”)

That said, the verb has a place. I find it especially useful in exposition. An example from my work: Perhaps this was punishment now, to die forgotten in the wild. Not sure how better to get this idea across without using “was”:

Perhaps he was being punished (passive and still uses was, only now as a helper verb).

“Perhaps I am being punished,” he said to himself (turning it into dialogue is much longer for no apparent benefit, and isn’t “am” the present form of “was”?)

Maybe the same people against “was” are also against exposition, but I find exposition pretty terrible to write without resorting to a was once in awhile.

Mar-18 at 12:39


“Where was he when you shot him?”
“He was getting into his car.”

Pretty dense, IMO. You could skip the second ’ he was,’ but it’s implied anyway.

“Where he be when you shot him?” works, I suppose if the character is a gangsta rapper or a 15th century Englishman.

Mar-18 at 13:45


So don’t use ‘was’. It’s lazy, bad writing and it’s probably the reason why you get all those rejection letters.

This makes it sound like you think your novel was rejected by agents because you’ve used ‘was’, but then got accepted the instant you removed them. Correct me I’m wrong but I think that would be highly unlikely.

I don’t think you should make statements like this because it confuses the newbies. A quick check of best sellers shows that the use of ‘was’ doesn’t mean an author will get rejection letters because of it. Whether or not you personally think the use of ‘was’ is lazy/bad writing, it doesn’t directly correlate with whether or not a book is rejected by an agent.

Of course, if you have actual proof that best-selling authors are lazy writers who received rejection letters because they used the ‘was’ word then that is different. Although, it seems GRR Martin was still accepted despite having plenty of ‘was’. A quick google search for GOT excerpts found these two examples with approximately 50 ‘was’ words per extract:
A Song of Fire and Ice
Winds of Winter

Mar-18 at 15:12


Sometimes I wonder if people read at all. When they come across “was” in published work, I can only assume they think the writer has got it all wrong. When I read I often see sentences or paragraphs that I know would be ripped apart in places like this.

For example this paragraph by John Le Carre:

The Alvis was in the stable yard; Roach never knew how Jim spirited it out of the Dip, but the trailer was right down there, at what should have been the deep end, bedded on platforms of weathered brick, and Jim was sitting on the step drinking from a green plastic beaker, and rubbing his right shoulder as if he had banged it on something, while the rain poured off his hat. Then the hat lifted and Roach found himself staring at an extremely fierce red face, made still fiercer by the shadow of the brim and by a brown moustache washed into fangs by the rain. The rest of the face was criss-crossed with jagged cracks, so deep and crooked that Roach concluded in another of his flashes of imaginative genius that Jim had once been very hungry in a tropical place and filled up again since. The left arm still lay across his chest, the right shoulder was still drawn high against his neck. But the whole tangled shape of him was stock-still, he was like an animal frozen against its background: a stag, thought Roach, on a hopeful impulse; something noble.

Mar-18 at 16:08


Following along with the bit you quoted, it’s funny because this person has listed Harry Potter as one of their favorite books, but it’s filled with the word ‘was’

Mar-18 at 16:26
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