Are You Sabotaging Your Story?

First of two posts
by Catherine E. McLean

The week after Christmas, I spent fifteen frustrating hours online searching for an e-book to download and test my CRUZ Tablet’s e-book reader function. Yes, I found plenty of e-books in four different genres that I like to read in. However, what I ended up downloading was Aesop’s Fables.

For the record, I never looked at any of the e-books’ prices, so that was not a factor. I just wanted a good read. So, as usual, I read the back-page blurbs or summaries. If that intrigued me, I read the first page. There might have been a good story to be read but, in virtually every instance, the author sabotaged their story with poor fiction and storytelling skills from the get-go.

This puzzled me, so I went back and looked at the book blurbs. I was astounded to find most were free downloads or less than $4.99 downloads. Then I discovered the books were e-published by the author, Smashwords, or the free e-publishing arm of Amazon or Barnes and Nobles. In other words, no one with real book-editing skills edited those e-books.

Okay, I did find one e-book that grabbed my attention, a PDF copy of the original 1968 book published by ROC. I also found other e-books by reputable print-publishers offering them in e-format. But guess what–all were copyrighted 2005 or earlier. I knew editors no longer edited but processed books for publication, however, I didn’t realize the scope of that effect on the quality of those e-books.

Now, I’ve heard agents, editors, and publishers say that 95% to 98% of the manuscripts they receive these days are unpublishable. Why is that? Because writing fiction is not as easy as it seems, especially in the computer age where just about everyone with a computer thinks they can write The Great American Novel.

The real issue I see is most peoples’ schooling involved learning the English language, grammar, and punctuation in order to communicate. That education did not emphasize fiction or how to become a storyteller.

So, what was the number one turn-off for me on those poor quality e-books I reviewed but didn’t buy? Actually, there were two: overuse of was/were and dull, passive narration.

Have you been thinking about being published or e-publishing? Want to prove to yourself that your story is better written then what I found in my search for an e-book? Well, I challenge you to take half an hour and do a simple test. All you have to do is print two (2) double-spaced pages of something you have written (that’s about 500 to 600 words depending on your font at 12 points). Next, take a highlighter and highlight every “was” you find. Count them. Keep that number handy. Now, turn the hard copy over so you don’t look at it.

Go to your computer and select those same pages (the same number of words you printed out as hard copy). Copy the text onto another document. Now, use your computer’s find feature and highlight feature to highlight all incidents of “was” on your screen. Count the instances. Now compare the total of the hard copy count to the computer count. How many did your eyes and mind miss? Correct the hard copy to agree with the computer count. In other words, find the ones you missed.

Next, set the hard copy pages side by side. This gives you a visual–you can actually SEE the overuse, the repetitions, the clusters.

If your pages were peppered with highlights, think about the sound of “was” (wuz). At some point, hearing “wuz” becomes a droning bee buzzing in the subconscious and conscious mind of the reader, eventually overpowering the story enjoyment until the reader quits reading.

Next, take the total number of wases and divide that number into the total number of words. Example: 528 words divided by 35 instances = 1 “was” every 15 words, which is equivalent to one in every sentence. (FYI: the 1 in 15 is an actual figure.) If you extrapolate 1 in 15 words to a 100,000 word novel, that’s 6,667 times was buzzes.

If you did this exercise, this challenge, please share your findings and conclusions. If you have any questions, or want more clarification, let me know.

Lastly, check back this afternoon for part two: passive narration.

Catherine McLean
Craft enhances talent.

***Early Bird Special Rates will end soon–check for information on my online workshop “Cause & Effect Sequences” running Feb.1 through March 9, 2012.
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24 responses to “Are You Sabotaging Your Story?

  1. Hi Catherine – thanks for sharing your insights here. My current WIP is written in the present-tense, so I performed your exercise with a search on “is” for my ratio:

    32/2508 = 0.013

    Whenever I copyedit I seek out repetitive words and overused scenarios to get at the heart of the content. Usually there’s something much better to draw out of a story once I sweep away the excess mulling.

    Here’s a fun toy for examining the weight of words in a manuscript:


    • Hi, Jade–

      You’re right, you can do the exercise for any word repetition. And thanks for the interesting link.

      I looked at your ratio and was stumped. You have the division reversed, 32 divided into 2508 is 78. In other words, “is” appears every 78 words which is not good. The z sound of “is” is buzzing too many times for the reader. Did you have any “is-ings?”


  2. Great post, Catherine. I’ll have to try this exercise on my ms and see what happens. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Thanks Catherine. There are some is-ings, I’ll take a closer look. 🙂

  4. I am diving in now to see what I come up with. I am nervous to see the results. Plus, I am bad at math, lol. Be back soon!

    • Interesting. When I printed out my pages I highlighted 5 instances of the word was. On the old ‘puter there were actually 8. I missed 3 of them and they were right next to each other.

      562/8= 70.25

      Did I do this right? Also, I counted the use if the word is, and its only 2.

      Also, what blew me away was seeing where the instances were. Each page had an equal number of 4 but they were all in the same paragraph, very close together.

      • Hi, Charli–

        Yes, you did the math correctly. You have 1 every 70 words, which is 4 per page. As I told Maria, can you get the number down to one per page, like one per 250? It’s something to strive for but don’t lock yourself into it because you have to take in the variables of POV-Viewpoint, etc.

        And, yes, what is most interesting is that you found a pattern–a clustering of them–and that insight will help you improve your storytelling.


  5. I did the math. On my two-page sample, I came up with 5 instances of the word, “was”. Highlighted them on the screen – still 5! It was a 597-word sample. So, 597/5 = 119.4 Sound good?

    • Hi, Maria–

      Congratulation on your proofreading skill! :))

      And, yes, one “was” in 119 words is so much better than the usual. That translates to two per page. Which leads me to ask, is there any chance you can get down to one per page? Like one per 250 words?

      If you’re wondering if there is an ideal ratio, I haven’t put together enough samples/figures yet to say for sure. There are so many variables, like POV-Viewpoint, dialogue, narration, and exposition that have to be considered in keeping or changing the was/weres. The bottom line is still going to be “how many is too many” which buzzes in the reader’s mind.


  6. I’ve always found a search and delete for the string “and then” can make a significant dent in the old wordcount 😉

    • Jon, do you delete both words or just one?

    • I’m sure you’re also aware that using the combination “and then” is a “red flag” waving that you may have strung too many clauses or sentences together, which leads to awkwardness or convoluted sentences. Do you also do a separate check for “and” and “then”? Both are “red flag words” that should be checked. If you do, let me know your findings.


  7. Wonderful post, Catherine! I’ve posted the link in the Query Tracker forums…

    The rigorous process of editing and revising is often overwhelming to a writer, sometimes resulting in a decision to release a manuscript before it’s ready. The eagerness to achieve publication can be too great to resist!

    Self-publishing is easier than ever before and is a very attractive route. Thankfully, groups like Pennwriters are dedicated to helping writers improve their craft and improve their chances of success.

    I’m an indie author who published with a small press. Pennwriters went a long way in helping me knock the socks off my editors… Indie publishing should never appear to be premature publishing.

    Exercises such as this go a long way to polishing our stories.

    Thanks again, Catherine!

  8. Ooh, this was (Hah!) very apropos for me, since i’m currently on a “was” hunt and destroy mission in my WIP.

    I had about 2 per page (and this was in a section i hadn’t cleaned up yet). I didn’t, though, however count my “wases” in dialogue, because it’s naturally how my characters speak (there were only 2 total anyway)

    I’d hoped you would provide some solutions, though, for the “was”, since i’m always looking for new techniques and including a lot of “wases” while I draft is a downfall of mine and something i always have to fix in revisions

    • Sarah, I revised some of my MS lst night. I had the pleasure of knowing what Catherine would be discussing here today so it had already started to seep in. I noted a place where I used was and immediately thought about how to correct it. Below is the example:

      The ceiling of her seaside bedroom was in dire need of a paint job.

      I thought about it and concentrated on the words following the being verb, was. I thought about all the other words that could convery, dire need. Here is the final outcome.

      The ceiling of her seaside bedroom desperately needed a paint job.

      I hope this helps. Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

    • HI, Sarah–

      I had that problem a long time ago. Thankfully, I learned the source of the problem stemmed from the failure of one of the four parts of the storytelling subconscious. It was not working for me. I had to kick the lazy little guy’s butt to get him online. Now he willingly works overtime. 🙂

      Okay–to explain. There are four components to the storytelling subconscious (or the imagination) and one of them happens to be The Stylistic part. This little muse (or whatever one wants to call it, him, or her) works line by line, first unconsciously in the original draft and then consciously in the revision stage. This little muse is where your “voice” comes from. It’s the failure of this part of the imagination that explains why punctuation and grammar fall short in a manuscript or where the story is told and not shown, or where the characters are two-dimensional puppets, and so on. And why revising becomes hard work once the draft is done.

      In other words, it’s time you had a very long chat with it/him/her and insist–really insist–that most of those wases be cut from your drafts. Once you’re satisfied your drafts are relatively was-free, you can insist other glitches be eliminated because you’re tired of revising for them.

      On the other hand, maybe what’s happening is that this little muse is overwhelmed by your demands for perfection in first drafts and it just can’t handle all that pressure. So, compromise or make a deal with the little muse to take one element at a time, and before you know it, your first drafts will not require laborious revisions.

      FYI: this is not my theory. The source is David Madden and a couple of teachers who helped me understand the mind and its ego states.


  9. I did this exercise as well. Out of 598 words, there were only two uses of “was” and I found them both on hard copy.

    This is a good exercise. Like you, I’ve noticed the proliferation of bad writing available for sale in e-books, even among respected publishers and imprints.

    Just when self-publishing is losing its ‘Vanity Press’ stigma, do you think the glut of bad prose will once again make it more difficult for good self-publishers to glean respect and be taken seriously?

    • I think that the industry will adjust to the proliferation of self-publishing on Amazon by simply creating more e-options for their authors and readers while still ensuring a quality product. As more polished, seasoned writers self pub the less professional authors should be weeded out, in theory.

      I think one of the biggest examples yet to come is what readers will pay for when Amanda Hocking’s first novel comes out at an industry set price. They won’t be $0.99 anymore. Will her readers pay more to continue reading her work? Is she worth it? (I don’t know personally, I haven’t read any of her novels.)

      At this point, the business is in the phase of, “let’s see what happens.” But that’s just my opinion.

      • I have to agree with Charil. The publishing industry is in such flux. However, I think we’re also seeing a chasm developing between writers who write (those producing the glut of free and 99 cent e-books) and true storytellers. To me, the difference is that a storyteller knows the value of editing, revising, and polishing their work for a readership. The storyteller also will educate themselves (and join organizations like Pennwriters) to learn the craft that lifts their books high above the 95-98% of what’s being submitted and e-published.


  10. The problem with this advice is that too many new writers take it to heart. They scrupulously avoid passive verbs and end up with weak writing. “Was” is a handy word and can be used properly.
    Also, literary writing tends to use “was” more than pop fiction does. So it really depends on taste as to what is “right” or “wrong.”

    I think this post would be better if it included examples of both good and bad writing. It’s easy to agree with such general statements, but how do I know if I agree with your taste?

  11. I’m late to the party, but I had 4 was’s in 522 words, or 1 every 130.5 words, or about 2 per page. Not so bad, but not so great, either. I found all 4 by highlighting; didn’t miss any. Great exercise! Thanks for the post.

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