Monday, December 9, 2013

How to Make Passive Writing Active

Hope you've had a good week.  Mine was incredibly long, but wonderful all the same.  I wrapped it up watching Catching Fire with some friends, and, well . . .  don't even get me started.  I am in like.

Today I'd like to start with something I recently figured out for myself.  A lot of writing advice books and blogs will include something along the lines of "avoid the word was" or "never use passive writing.  Ever."  Sometimes I just feel bad for the horrible rap the word "was" gets, along with other helping verbs like is, has had, had been, are, and so on and so forth.

As a new writer, I found all of this advice very confusing.  I knew not to use the word "was" or the phrase "had been," but I didn't know to avoid the word in a sentence.  Often, instead of fixing the problem, I just tried to come up with sentences that didn't use the word "was" even if that meant skipping over what I wanted to say.

It wasn't until the past year or so that I've figured out how to change passive writing to active.  One thing that really helped me was what fellow teen writer Nick Hight had to say.  He wrote a passive sentence: "The beach was being sat on."  Then he wrote an active version of that sentence.  "They sat on the beach."  Most people would say the second sentence is better.  Even if they couldn't put their finger on it, they would say they prefer the second sentence.

So how do you do it?  How do you change that passive writing to active?  Here's what I've learned.

1) Figure out who or what does the action.
Take the sentence "The inn was noisy."  This is a fine sentence.  It communicates what's going on in the room.   But it's passive.  We can make it stronger.  To do this, we ask who or what made the inn noisy?  Maybe the patrons, maybe just a few drunk old men at the bar. But saying, "A few drunk old men at the bar made the inn noisy," gives you a lot more information than "The room was noisy."

2) Re-arrange the sentence
Let's use a similar sentence to the one above.   "The room was filled with noise."  Now, put the end of the sentence at the front.  "Noise, the room was filled with."  I think we can agree that's a pretty bad sentence.  It sounds like something Yoda would say.  But it might suggest another sentence.  To me, it suggests, "Noise filled the room."  This sentence says the exact same thing as the first one, but it gets rid of the passive writing.

3) Hunt down your -ing words
Something I tend to do a lot is use a sentence like, "The girl was running." Often, I find that when I use "was" with a word ending in "-ing" I can get rid of both the "was," and the "-ing" and have a stronger sentence.  In this case, "The girl ran."  Sometimes this don't work, but it does for the most part.*

4) I had had too many had's
Recently, I found a pin on Pinterest.  It said something like, "I love English.  This sentence makes perfect sense.  'The faith he had had had had no effect.'"  While that sentence is grammatically correct, it is not something I would want to find in a printed book.  Often, we use too many "had"s.  For instance, earlier in the post, I typed "I had wanted to say."  Then, I read the sentence over and realized I could take the "had" out and the sentence read exactly the same.  "I wanted to say," is still a past tense sentence that still makes perfect sense.  Although avoiding or deleting the extra 'had' won't boost your word count during NaNoWriMo, in my opinion, it makes for better writing when you have to take a red pen to those extra words.

*) The exception that proves the rule
Sometimes, you need the word 'was.'  It helps you describe an action that is ongoing.  The sentence, "She was string the pot as we walked through the kitchen," means something a little different than, "She stirred the pot as we walked through the kitchen."  They are similar, put in this case sentence one makes you think she stirred the put the entire time they walked through the kitchen, while sentence two makes you think she gave the pot a stir as they walked through the room.  In a case like this, I would say using the word 'was' is excusable.

(Just a note, the example in that paragraph was borrowed in part from a writing book I highly recommend, Go Teen Writers by Jill Williamson and Stephanie Morrill.  The e-book is currently on sale for $0.99, but I think that only lasts a short while longer.  I happen to own both versions, and I can't sing it's praises loud enough.  And yeah, it's signed.)

Hope this helps.  No one is perfect.  In my 'closest I have to a finished,' novel, I have used the word 'was' just under 500 times. I could do a lot better.  There are times I use the word 'was' because I don't like the flow of the revised sentences.  I'm not saying you can never use passive writing, I'm just showing you how to make it active, should you chose to do so.

I'm planning on writing another post for Thursday, but we'll have to see how my week goes.  I will definitely see you on Monday.

I need your help with an upcoming blog post.  What are some of the best books you read in 2012-2013?  And what genres were those books?  Are there any genres you love but can never find good books in?  Please leave a comment and let me know.  I love hearing from you.


  1. Very helpful post. I probably use the word "was" way too much, though recently I challenged myself to write my eyewitness report without using any "be" verbs. It was hard.

    The best (new-to-me) books I read in 2013 were:
    The Books of the Infinite series (fantasy)
    The Lunar Chronicles (sci-fi/fairytale)
    Divergent (dystopian)
    The Septimus Heap series

    I've recently gotten into the steampunk genre, but all the steampunk books look . . . less than appropriate.

    1. I love steampunk. My two favs are The Clockwork Angel and Etiquette and Espionage. Have you read either of those? Thanks for reading!

  2. This is very helpful. I've been making a conscious effort to avoid passive voice in my writing, but it's often difficult. Thanks for your clear examples.

    The best books I've read this year? Wow, that's hard! I really loved:
    There You'll Find Me (YA contemporary)
    Dear Mr. Knightley (contemporary)
    The Help (historical)
    …and many more! What were your favorites?

    1. I've found the best way to avoid passive writing is to avoid it during first drafts, but I get lazy quickly. I've been writing a lot more this year, and along with that comes a lot less reading, unfortunately.
      Thanks for reading!


Comments are awesome, rudeness is not. 'Nough said.