Friday, November 27, 2009

Understanding Passive Writing

When I sent in my first manuscript to an editor at Wild Rose Press, I was sent a very nice email and several editing notes. One instruction that became a common theme was the sentence, “Try not to write passively.”

Passive? Really? How could I write passively? I know I felt everything in the story and I was certain that it was being actively portrayed. I mean, the characters were moving forward, weren’t they.

Unfortunately, while there were many areas that I owned what I wrote, there were just as many, if not more that I didn’t. I suddenly found myself reading my work, the voice chanting in my head, “Passive, passive, passive, no not passive, we don’t want passive.”

I followed the thread of thought and flipped open The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr and E.B. White – a recommended must for any author’s bookshelf. Ahh, there it was on page 18. I had the secret to writing with an active voice.

Unfortunately, a read through of page 18 didn’t illuminate everything. What words were passive? Why were they passive? Of course, I worked through the edits, handed them over to others to read and prayed that I had overcome my passive writing. The advice given confused me even more and I found myself completely unsure of what passive writing really was.

It is a question that many writers have heard. We all know the warnings and while passive writing is okay in some instances, many new writers – myself included – overuse passive writing and it takes away from the story.

So when I was asked to write a post for this month, the first thing that sprang to mind was passive writing and giving a few tips on how to avoid a passive voice.

Tip Number One: Understand what passive is

Passive writing is not committing to the story, the action and at times the character. It is writing that takes the life and excitement out of the words and creates a paragraph that is filled with showing, not telling.

In addition, passive writing can slow down the movement in the story and even descriptive words can be rendered dull and lifeless. Generally, passive writing removes the emphasis from the action and makes it impersonal to the characters.

Tip Number Two: Find those passive words

One of the hardest points for me was finding those passive words. I found the exceptions to the rule frustrating and often wondered what I was doing wrong exactly. The best way to overcome the exceptions is to follow a general rule of thumb. If a word can be passive, then err on the side of caution and jot it down as a word that is always passive. When you edit, you can remove or add the word as you need while keeping the voice active and engaging.

The general rule is the following:

A “to be” in any form combined with a past participle will create a passive voice.

“To be” words are not always passive but they can be if they are used incorrectly.

Some examples of “to be” forms are:
  • Are
  • Am
  • Have
  • Will be
  • Being
  • Was
  • Were
  • Is

Past participle words are:
  • Awoken
  • Burnt
  • Arrested
  • Seen
  • Looked

Passive words often overused are that, which and had although they are not always passive.

Tip Number Three: Stop Telling

Telling is a problem that many authors slip into and it can be a difficult habit to break. Basically, when you are telling the story instead of showing, you avoid giving the action or feeling to the character. It becomes more about working through what is happening and the story becomes lifeless and is a direct route to a passive passage.

Tip Number Four: Question your writing

Before you send out your writing to anyone, make sure that you sit back and ask yourself some questions. This is a great way to find your passive writing and it will help you improve your skills as a writer.

The questions that you should ask are:
  • Is there an action?
  • Is there a character that belongs to the action? If not, does there need to be a character?
  • Will the sentence need to be clarified for anyone reading it other than you?
  • Do you see any “to be” words combined with a past participle?
  • Do you see any of the overused passive words?
  • Can the sentence be rewritten in a better manner?
  • Are you in the story or simply being given instructions on the progression? (showing vs. telling)

Tip Number Five: Accept the passive voice

The last tip that I would like to close with is accepting the passive voice. Unbelievably, there are a number of instances when a passive voice is accepted. This can be when you are writing a scientific paper, or report and can be seen in fictional works. Passive writing can be used to set a time line, within a narrative or if the reader’s don’t need to know who owns the action.

There can be benefits to the passive voice but it should be done in moderation and only when it is necessary. It is important to remember that a book doesn’t have to be completely active – in fact, a completely active story can have many problems in itself – but passive writing should only be used when it serves a purpose. If there is no purpose, then it shouldn’t be there.

I hope that I have shed some light on passive writing. As I mentioned, this was an area that I had to focus on significantly and it is one that I continue to work on but I am getting there.

All the best,



  1. This is something I struggle with, too. Thanks for the pointers. :)

  2. Sirena,

    Thanks for a great post and wonderful tips.

  3. Thanks Lill and Karen. I often find myself writing in passive voice and I have to go through all the notes I have on a regular basis so I don't slip back into it.