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To "was" or not to "was"

Updated: Feb 14

A gibbon doing its thing. Image by Dominik R H, Pixabayabay

Some of the best writing advice I ever received was from Chuck Palahniuk.

No, wait! Chuck Palahniuk gave me some of the best writing advice I ever received.

Yes, I’m talking about that Chuck Palahniuk, the best-selling, slightly scary author of “Fight Club” and other stories from the dark underbelly of the human psyche.

As a writing coach, though, Chuck trends more insightful than scary. So, what invaluable nugget of writerly wisdom did Chuck lay down for us?

It was simply this: Replace all forms of “to be” and “to have” with active verbs.

Now, plenty of writing coaches will tell you to ditch verbs of thought and feeling when writing in deep third person point of view. Even sense verbs, like “see” or “smell” get sacrificed for the sake of immersing readers in a character’s subjective experiences.

But why get rid of “to be” or “to have”? These verbs are used more than any others in the English language. And how could you possibly write in the past tense without using “was”?

In his memoir and writing guide, “Consider This …,”[i] Chuck appeals to science when he tells us why he thinks these verbs have to go. It turns out that active verbs like “kick” or “jump” actually stimulate regions in our brains that control these movements. By contrast, the static verbs “to be” or “to have” offer no such stimulation for our noggins.

“With that in mind,” says Chuck, “I’d tell you to avoid ‘is’ and ‘has’ in any form.” Wow, that's pretty definitive.

Let’s get physical!

So, how can we get rid of those pesky verbs?

Imagine, for example, a scene at the zoo. You might write, “There was a gibbon in the cage,” but you could also say that “A gibbon inhabited the cage” or “A gibbon brachiated around its cage,” if you want to get fancy about it.

Regardless of word choice, these active alternatives to “was” imply something more specific and concrete about the relationship between the gibbon and his enclosure.

Replacing “was” and “had” with active verbs also pumps vitality into character descriptions. Returning to our gibbon, you might write that “The gibbon had strangely human, long-fingered hands.” Observing the creature closely, however, you might say “He dangled his strangely human, long-fingered hands like a model drying her nails.” Now you’re painting a word picture that captures a particular aspect of the gibbon’s physicality.[ii]

Let’s leave the zoo and try a human example. Contrast “Her unruly mane of jet-black hair was untamable by any stylist” with “Her unruly mane of jet-black hair repelled every stylist’s attempts to tame it.” The first example is fine, though it won’t win any prizes. In the second example, that hair’s got agency. It’s hair with a mission, and it ain’t gonna take guff from no hairdresser.

Was there pushback on was?

Chuck Palahniuk isn’t the first writing coach or editor to express hostility toward static verbs in general and “was” in particular. Others have a different opinion and push back against the prohibitionist stance implied by his advice.

September C. Fawkes laments the stories that were “crippled” because authors tied themselves in knots avoiding “was.” Emma Darwin experiences similar frustrations with such authorial gymnastics. Between them, Fawkes and Darwin list many situations where “was” will be a reasonable and logical word choice. You’ll use it in dialogue, unless your characters are unusually articulate. You'll use it in the continuous past tense: “He was walking to the pub when …” You'll use it to emphasize or focus on the subject.

The list goes on, and I can add a few pro-was items of my own to it.

Sometimes, for example, “to be” or “to have” provide the simplest, least fussy way to get your point across. Sometimes you just need to say, “This is a deceased parrot,” and move on.

Judicious use of static verbs also establishes a more contemplative mood when you need it. Saying that “His thoughts were drifting” creates more temporal space for thoughts to drift than saying “His thoughts drifted.”

Finally, great authors have used these static verbs to great effect. Consider the opening line of George Orwell’s 1984:

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

And how about that old rule breaker, Charles Dickens in Tale of Two Cities:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,” etcetera etcetera.

Even Chuck Palahniuk uses static verbs. I counted eight variations of “to be” and three of “to have” in the first two pages of “Fight Club.”

To conclude, then, replacing forms of “to be” and “to have” with active verbs will make your writing more dynamic and precise—most of the time. But don’t torture yourself or your prose by trying to avoid those static verbs. They have their place and are sometimes exactly the right choice.

This post is a revised and updated version of an article that originally appeared at


[i] The book's full title is “Consider This: moments in my writing life after which everything was different.”

[ii] “Why a gibbon?” you ask. Because I went to the zoo in Winnipeg and the gibbon made a big impression.

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