Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Unsolicited Advice: Passive Writing

The more I write—and specifically, the more I edit—the more I realize I still have a lot to learn. (Who’da thunk?) And I’ve noticed one particular issue both in my own novels and in published books.

Passive Writing.

Now, for those not in the know, an author uses passive writing when he or she relies on “to be” verbs such as “am”, “is”, “are”, “was”, “were”, etc… Also, just so we’re on the same page, active writing employs verbs of action rather than verbs of being. Did I make that confusing enough? Good, okay, moving on.

For starters, passive verbs perform many great jobs, but they have one great flaw. They tell rather than show. If I were to say, “The cow is angry,” it would be a statement of fact. By my word choice, I have conveyed the necessary information to you, and that would be fine if I were writing an informative article (I think). But novels deal with the imagination, and that means the reader should get involved as well. So that’s where active writing comes in. Rather than simply telling you what you need to know, it’s my responsibility to go deeper than that. Instead of saying, “The cow is angry,” I could write, “The cow snorted, lowered its head, and gouged the earth with its hoof.”

In the first example, I took the easy route—I simply told you what was going on. But in the second example, I gave you three vital (and hopefully interesting) bits of information, and then trusted you to come to the proper conclusion on your own. By using the passive verb “is”, I wasn’t necessarily trying to communicate that I think my readers are too stupid to look at the evidence and then figure out the cow’s emotional state, but I wasn’t trusting you to figure it out yourself, either.

Here are some more examples that (hopefully) show why passive verbs make for weaker writing:


The woman was old.

With her grey hair pulled into a bun above her wrinkled face, the woman shuffled along, her joints creaking.  


Once the horsemen were through, the gate was shut behind them.

Once the horsemen had ridden through, the gates swung shut behind them.


He was tired.

His shoulders sagged, and he struggled to keep his eyes open.


The rope was frayed.

The rope had begun to fray.


There is a dresser on the other side of the room.

A dresser stands on the other side of the room.


As far as words go, passive verbs are boring. With them, you serve as merely an onlooker, watching from the sidelines as the drama unfolds—you become the audience in the theater, the person flipping through the photo album. Like the verbs, your role is passive. But with active verbs, you enter into the story as though you belong to it, as though you can take part in the narrative. Which option would you prefer?

That’s not to say you should never use passive verbs again. They do have their place as well. When I stumble across something passive in my story, though, I have to ask myself whether a more active word choice would work better in its place. And, nine times out of ten, I find the answer is yes.

Just to drive my point home, let me show you how passive writing effects, not only individual sentences, but the entire flow of the story:


"There is a dog. I see it out the window. The dog is big and brown, and his ears are perked. I am sure he is listening to something, but I cannot hear it myself. Maybe there is a rabbit in the brush across the road. Maybe the rabbit is sitting with its paws up and its nose twitching. Maybe it smells the dog. If it does, I’m sure it’s afraid."


Now see what happens when I make this active:


"When I lean out the window, I see the dog, sitting there all big and brown with his ears perked. He must hear something I can’t. Maybe he senses a rabbit hiding in the brush across the road, sitting with its paws up and its nose twitching at the sharp canine scent. I can only imagine how the poor critter’s little heart must be racing."


Now it’s your turn. If you’d like, try rewriting the paragraph below in the comments section using active verbs—and feel free to think outside the box and tweak the sentence structures if you have to:


"The princess was sad. The halls were dark, and the sound of her feet was loud as she walked toward the exit. On the other side of the door was her destiny. Or maybe it was her doom. To her, the two were the same thing. She wasn’t happy to be here, and every moment she lingered was torture."


  1. Sometimes passive voice rocks, and other times it does not. It's certainly more brief, oftentimes, and I tend to appreciate that in my writing a little too much. Still, I think I shall give your paragraph challenge a go!

    The princess blinked away strawberry tears. Darkness cloaked everything but her ungainly footsteps as she walked towards the dungeon. Destiny awaited her down below, or perhaps her own doom. Never mind, she couldn't tell the difference anymore. Shudders of unease rippled up her naked arms, and every moment that passed churned her stomach just a little harder. Oh, the torture!

    *nods* There you go.

    1. I agree--passive voice really helps with conciseness. I know I can lean a little too heavily on it, but I do want to be careful not to overcompensate in the other direction, either. :P

      *claps loudly* Nice job with the paragraph. If this were from an actual book, I would totally want to read that book. I might even pry it out of the hands of a crying baby if I had to. Nicely done. :)

  2. It took me FOREVER to understand that I was writing passively. And I agree! It has it's place, but it's like 10000% better to make a sentence actiony. The biggest one that annoys me, particularly when I'm reading other books, is when people go: He was walking. Just say HE WALKED. It makes it action and cuts down a word. Grrr. I feel like this is nearly basic editing, but whatever. I'm peculiar sometimes.
    But I love this post a million percent and wish all the writers new it. :D

    1. It took me quite a while on this one too--well, okay, so I still need to work on it. And I think I only started noticing how annoying it was when I was beta reading a bunch of novels while editing my book, and I started realizing how some of the issues I pointed out (like passive writing) in other people's stories were also showing up in mine as well. Seriously though, the "He was walking/he walked" issue is a great example, and I feel like it should be basic editing, but I also understand how it's easy to get into a rut and stop noticing little things like that.
      I'm glad you liked this post. XD We shall spread the word, slowly but surely.

  3. I struggle SO much with passive writing (spoiler: the first sentence I typed was actually passive, so I had to rewrite it haha). It's difficult to get rid of because I use it so often in daily writing or just casually talking with someone. I've noticed that it's a problem in my writing, so reading posts like these are so, so helpful.

    I'm going to keep an eye out for more passive writing now, so thank you so much Liz! <33

    -Aneeqah @ My Not So Real Life

    1. Lol, I struggle with passive writing as well, and I totally understand having to rewrite your first sentence. I do that when commenting on blogs all the time. It definitely is one of those hard-to-break habits.

      You're welcome, and thank you! I'm glad I could help. :)

  4. I'm so glad I stumbled on your blog. I love it! Oh passive writing...I'm a newbie at writing so I struggle a lot with that. I often tend to tell rather than show, this is why I always need to go over my work again and again and again. Your post was really helpful!

    1. Why thank you! Don't worry--even those who've written for years still struggle with stuff like passive writing, especially because it seems to slip through the cracks so easily. I'm glad my post was helpful! And welcome to the writing community. :)

  5. I love this post! It's one of those things that writers don't realize when they start out.

    I know I didn't. Sometimes it's hard to cut out the passive voice. But then I realized it's almost like a short cut. Why say, "I started washing the dishes," when I could say, "I washed the dishes," or even better, "I dunk the plate in the soapy, hot water and wince at the heat." The first just sounds like I stumble all over my words.

    I recently read an article on "filter words." It usually things like "He thought," or "he saw/ heard." Instead of saying "I thought he was joking," I could go for, "He's joking, right?" Or instead of "I saw the car bumping down the road," I could just cut to, "The car bumped down the road." It puts the reader more in the character's head. In the first one I see the character seeing something; in the second I actually see what the character is seeing. I just thought that was really cool.

    (Oh man, this comment has so much passive voice!)

    1. Thank you! And you're right--it's one of those details that just doesn't stick out as well. It isn't glaringly obvious like poor spelling and grammar.

      Good point. Once you start avoid passive writing, it does smooth things out and save time. And after a while, you can get so used to avoiding it that it really isn't such a problem anymore.

      True thing about the "filter words". I was actually thinking about writing a post about that soon. I think those are even harder to notice than passive verbs because they really do blend in. But when you edit them out, the difference is amazing. It is super cool--thanks for sharing!

      I will forgive your passive voice--a lot of my comments tend toward passive voice, so we're in the same boat. :)