Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Revisions: Cutting the Passive Voice/Weak Writing

Something drove me crazy in revisions. Passive voice and weak writing. I’d already been through a few drafts and caught a lot of problems, but still it’d snuck in in a few places. Getting rid of passive voice really shines up the story and makes it much more alive – active, moving quickly. I’ve gotten rid of most of it now and I’ve already noticed it’s not as prevalent in the new novel I’m working on, so I guess something is sinking in, I hope! – ha!

Anyway, in an attempt to possibly help others during their revisions, I’m compiled a list from various sources that helped me pinpoint problem areas/searches to do in a later draft to look for passive words/weak phrases.


*As has been pointed out to me by my grammar nerd friends, technically the following examples are not all passive voice but examples of plain old weak writing as well.*

Definition of passive voice: A verb form or voice in which the grammatical subject receives the verb's action. Contrast with active voice.

Some searches to do:

Search for all forms of “to be” verb. (are, were, been, being, be, am, is, etc.)

Change the noun to a verb.
The sentence, "I am a dancer," uses the passive verb "am." Change the noun "dancer" to an active verb: “I dance." Four words became two.

Look for "by."
In, "The paper was written by the girl." uses the passive verb "was." A simple change to “The girl wrote the paper.” solves the sentence structure and makes it more active.

Search for sentences or phrases beginning with "there" or "it" plus a form of the verb "to be."
Instead of using the passive verb "are" in a sentence such as "There are things we can do to change her mind," say, "We can change her mind." Again, the change is clear, concise and active.

Look for "ing."
Example: "I am climbing," uses the passive verb "are." A stronger and more active sentence is: "I climb." Three words became two, and it moves better, stronger, more alive.

Search for "been."
I found a lot of passive phrases hiding behind it. “Your work has been reviewed.” is better as, “We have reviewed your work.”

Search for "felt," "heard," etc.
These aren’t as obvious, but a few snuck into my prose. “I felt my heartbeat quicken.” can simply be, “My heartbeat quickened.” OR “I heard his voice change; he was scared.” Can be, “His voice changed; he was scared.”

Search for other problem words
Another friend just gave me another tip for things that may crop up in first drafts. Sentences like: "She began walking" should be changed to "She walked." Or, "The crowd started to part." to, "The crowd parted." I guess in this case you could search for things like began, started or any other problem words/phrases like those, that you find as recurring problems in your manuscript.

These are minor examples but hopefully this compilation will prove useful to someone else during revisions. Or, at the very least it will be a good reference for me whenever I finish the current WIP!

If you have any other advice on the topic, post in the comments and I'll add to the post. Thanks!:)


  1. Great post. I have a lot of problems with passive voice and in most cases I do not know how to fix it. Thanks for this great info.

  2. I've had problems in the past too. Even now, I'll still look at something I'm supposed to have sorted and that darned passive voice is staring at me!

    Great post to remind me to double check everything.

  3. Thank you for posting this. Passive voice is one of my #1 problems in writing. I'll refer back to this post when I do my editing. :)

  4. Those are good hints, thanks. Passive voice is my bete-noire. That's what makes editing and re-editing so important.

  5. Excellent points! I wish I would've found this when I was working on my first novel. Le sigh. Live and learn, I suppose.

  6. I’m glad you guys found it helpful. I was thinking this was a boring blog post and hoping not to put everyone to sleep!

  7. Two thumbs up!

    One other I thought of, though I'm not entirely sure if it makes it passive (maybe?) I, anyway lol. Began/Start. Instead of "She began walking." change to "She walked." Or, "The crowd started to part." to, "The crowd parted."

  8. Hi there, and congrats on your agent signing! =)

    I don't want to sound like a grammar snob, but, well, I'm a grammar snob. LOL

    The examples you site above ARE NOT in the passive voice.

    The definition you gave for passive voice is correct: A verb form or voice in which the grammatical subject receives the verb's action.

    Except: It isn't a VERB FORM OR VOICE. Rather, it is a SENTENCE in which the subject receives the verb's action. The voice is in the SENTENCE, NOT in the VERB.

    The SUBJECT receives the action. So, here are correct examples:

    The fence was painted by my husband.

    Subject = FENCE

    What was painted? The FENCE! The fence, which is the SUBJECT, receives the action of the verb WAS PAINTED.

    This is obviously a weak sentence. Here is the ACTIVE VOICE:

    My husband painted the fence.

    Now FENCE is the DIRECT OBJECT, which receives the action of the transitive verb PAINTED.

    Other examples:

    PASSIVE: The children were taught their multiplication tables by Mrs. Stewart.

    ACTIVE: Mrs. Stewart taught the children their multiplication tables.

    PASSIVE: The tree was blown over by the wind.
    ACTIVE: The wind blew over the tree.

    The presence of a form of the verb "to be" DOES NOT constitute the passive voice.

    The sentence I AM A DANCER (your example above) is in the ACTIVE VOICE. "AM" is a linking verb and DANCER is a predicate nominative renaming the subject. You can tighten the writing by saying I DANCE if you'd like, but neither sentence is passive. They are both ACTIVE.

    Your second example above is CORRECT! In THE PAPER WAS WRITTEN BY THE GIRL, "PAPER" receives the action of the verb "was written," which makes the sentence passive.

    Your third example is NOT IN THE PASSIVE VOICE. It's just bad writing. The word "there" is called an "expletive" and should be avoided whenever necessary. So while your advice to get rid of sentences starting with "there" is excellent, please note that these sentences are NOT PASSIVE.

    Basically, you are calling forms of the verb TO BE "passive," which is incorrect. BE verbs are used as linking verbs, helping verbs, and main verbs of the sentence. It is not the use of the verb that makes a sentence have the passive voice; it is writing a sentence in which the action is PASSED BACK TO THE SUBJECT.

    Same with your "I am climbing." example. This sentence is NOT PASSIVE. It can certainly be tightened to "I CLIMB", but again, neither sentence is PASSIVE.

    The "felt" and "heard" example has nothing to do with passive voice, either. It's just bad writing, and your advice to change it is excellent.

    So there are lots of ways to tighten and improve writing, but most of your examples above are not examples of the passive voice at all.

    Remember: PASSIVE VOICE is when the action is passed BACK TO THE SUBJECT. And while sentences written in the passive voice often include forms of the verb TO BE, the presence of this verb does not in any way indicate passive voice.

    Clear as mud? =) Hope this was helpful!

  9. Authoress - Yep, yep and yep. I actually started with a few passive voice examples and then it turned into a post full of weak writing examples and things to search for during editing. I added a small caveat but methinks I should change the post title to avoid confusion. Thanks!:)

  10. Best. Post. Ever. I have such a problem with this, and this list is an awesome compilation of all the ways to ferret those nasty habits out! Thank you!

  11. This is a great post. Wonderful points.

  12. Thanks, Jennifer. Wonderful post!

  13. Thank you Jennifer for this helpful list. Question though. While writing your first draft, do you try to avoid using passive or inactive words? With my first draft, I write it as it comes and then I go back to edit. It seems to be more work but I'm afraid to stop typing in case I lose the story as it flows then. Thanks again!