I remember signing with my first agent, and her policy was to do a fairly rigorous edit on her client's first manuscripts before submitting them. When she sent mine back, she'd circled every occurrence of "was" in the first three chapters, with a note that said although she knew you couldn't write a manuscript without using that word, or other forms of "to be", I should try to eliminate as many as possible.
I wonder what she (and many other agents, editors, contest judges, reviewers—anyone who goes by the "using was means passive writing" dictum) would have done if she'd received the following submissions. All the below are opening lines/paragraphs. For fun, if you'd like, consider it a quiz of sorts. Can you identify the source? No rules; answers at the end of the post.
1. 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, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
2. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
All right, you say. Those are "old" books and times have changed. So let's look at some more contemporary examples.
3. It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him. Yossarian was in the hospital with a pain in his liver that fell just short of being jaundice.
4. Eldridge Taylor was driving a long straight two-lane road in Nebraska when his cell phone rang. It was very late in the afternoon. He was taking his granddaughter home after buying her shoes. His truck was a crew-cab Silverado the color of a day-old newspaper and the kid was flat on her back on the small rear seat.
5. It wasn't a very likely place for disappearances, at least at first glance. Mrs. Baird's was like a thousand other Highland bed-and-breakfast establishments in 1945...
6. I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs , and nearly stepped on him. In my defence, I must say it was an engrossing book, and it was very rare for me to come across another person in that particular part of the world in that war year of 1915.
7. It was the car they had been looking for. The license plate was gone but Harry Bosch could tell. A 1987 Honda Accord, its maroon paint long faded by the sun. It had been updated in '92 with the green Clinton bumper sticker and now even that was faded.
The lesson here: make your writing shine, but don't ruin things trying to follow arbitrary rules. Again, take things in context. "Ran" may be stronger than "was running" but sometimes the so-called 'weak' construction is what your story needs. I'm sure the authors of the samples above are laughing all the way to the bank. (Oh—and avoid clichés!)
1. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
2. 1984, George Orwell
3. Catch 22, Joseph Heller
4. Worth Dying For, Lee Child
5. Outlander, Diana Gabaldon
6. The Beekeeper's Apprentice, Laurie R. King
7. Echo Park, Michael Connelly
Causes Terry Odell Supports
Pro Literacy Worldwide, The Nature Conservancy, The Adult Literacy League, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society