The most common place I find it is when I’m describing a setting. For example, after Bob walks into a room, I might write:
“Nikita was sitting in the corner looking hot.”
Or after Bob walks into a high school:
“The principal was running after the drug dealer trying to take away his pot-pipe.”
You can probably already see what’s wrong with both of those sentences in the context of this example, but I’ll point it out just in case.
In the first, Nikita isn’t actually performing any kind of action. What does the phrase “was sitting” even mean? I have no idea. If she “was sitting,” does that mean she no longer is?
If the point of the sentence is to inform the reader that a) Nikita is there, and b) Bob thinks she’s hot, then it needs to be rewritten in such a way to show that, without using past progressive tense.
How about this:
“Bob noticed Nikita in the corner. It took everything he had to pull his eyes away from her legs.”
…or something like that. I’m not the best at writing steamy stuff.
In the second example, the principal “was running.” Again, that sentence lacks a simple action to make it relevant. If Bob observes that the principal is actually in the process of running after a drug dealer, then the writer should simply say it.
“The principal ran past Bob, in hot pursuit of a drug dealer.”
The one nice thing about this problem is that cleaning it up is rather simple. First off, be more aware of it. If you know when you’re most likely to fall into the trap of past progressive tense, it will be easier to avoid. For me, it’s when I describe the setting of scene. My descriptions need work, and this is part of the reason why.
Secondly, search your story for every instance of the word “was” and figure out if the word is absolutely necessary. Nine times out of ten, you can get rid of it. You should be able to determine the actual message the sentence is meant to convey and then rewrite it in the proper tense for your story.
And if all else fails, just replace the “was verb-ing” with “verb.” See the example below:
“He avoided past progressive tense”
is far superior to
“He was avoiding past progressive tense.”
So that is one of the weaknesses I’ve been working on. What are yours?