overusing passive verbs

Are You Overusing Passive Verbs?

how to tell if you're overusing passive verbsIn narrative writing, active verbs are usually preferable to passive verbs for the simple reason that the active voice offers more options for bringing a sentence to life and infusing it with… action!

Although passive verbs certainly have their place, it’s good to remind ourselves from time to time of how much more power we find in active constructions.

A literary novel I read recently offered just such a reminder—by way of prose absolutely stuffed with passive verbs. Midway through the book’s first chapter, I stumbled upon an especially egregious paragraph, which contained eight passive sentences, one after the other, with nary an active verb in sight.

Although not inherently problematic, this slew of passivity robbed this particular paragraph of any chance of energy and motion. The characters and their actions just laid there, flat on the page, like a stuffy room waiting for someone to open the window and let in a breeze.

Don’t let this happen to your paragraphs. Keep your sentences moving forward with a judicious mix of verbs—more active than passive.

But don’t grab the first action verb that comes along. Dig under the surface of your prose until you find words that convey just the right meaning and, when appropriate, those that are original enough to help a reader see an old action in a new way.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How often do you think about the balance of active and passive verbs as you write? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I’m not as conscious with the first draft. But when I rewrite I am very aware of using active strong verbs. Sometimes when reading a book it can make a huge difference in whether the actual writing hooks me.

  2. Agreed. Sometimes passive voice can be a crutch to get us through the first draft, but upon revision, active voice should be the goal. At least for me.

  3. This is a button pusher for me, after a former agent send back my ms with every instance of “was” circled in red.

    Likewise to those who confuse “passive” verbs with “passive” voice

    “Was” is NOT a passive verb, and using “was” doesn’t indicate passive voice. Yes, these verb choices might be better, but I defy anyone to tell me Lee Child and Michael Connelly could write better prose if they eliminated the word “was.”

    Terry
    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

  4. I’m glad you made that comment, Terry.

    It’s true that instances of “to be” aren’t as strong as other verbs, but that doesn’t make the passive voice.

    I had someone who circled every time I used progressive tense (ex, “was going”) and said it was passive voice.

    Bleg.

  5. The Wordplay blog/podcast always challenges me to learn more about the craft of writing to become an excellent craftsman with the tools of this trade. Thanks K.M.!

  6. Yes, it’s important to keep a sense of action and excitement in prose, but people over-diagnose and over-treat “passivity” all the time. I see it as a question of what the author intends by placing different actors or objects as the subject of sentences. Sometimes you can’t achieve the effect you want unless you use a passive verb. It makes me wonder whether the stuffy feeling of that literary paragraph was intended by its author or not.

  7. @Laura: Passive voice often gets the job done, but it’s amazing how an effective use of the active voice can perk a sentence right up and take it from ordinary to extraordinary.

    @Anna: Voice choice shouldn’t be a big concern in the first draft. At that point, we’re just trying to get the ideas on paper as fast as we can. We can worry about effective sentence structure in later drafts.

    @Terry: This is one of those “rules” that people tend to obsess about and overreact to. We should no more exterminate the passive voice than we should exterminate all telling in a story. Balance, balance, balance – it’s all-important in writing fiction.

    @Sarah: I should do a post on “passive verbs that aren’t” one of these days, because this is a common misunderstanding. People want so badly to keep their sentences active that they overreact even to auxiliary verbs.

    @The Scribe: As writers we should be in a constant state of “challenge.” I’m so glad to hear Wordplay is playing a part in challenging you. Thanks for reading/watching/listening!

  8. @Juliette: No one but the author can say that for certain (which is one of the reasons I left her and her book unnamed), but the fact that these sentences fell flat for a reasonably objective reader like myself means they probably could benefited from an active boost. Ultimately, the most important thing to understand about verb voice is the effect of both activity and passivity. If we understand the effect we want to achieve and we understand which voice is more likely to achieve it, we can master this important technique.

  9. great post, KM, and it’s so right. One of the nice things about being trained as a journalist is it’s habit to lead with active rather than passive. It makes a HUGE difference~ :o) <3

  10. I’ve heard that journalism skills are sometimes inhibiting to a writer, but this kind of foundational training can’t go amiss.

  11. “Keep them moving forward with a judicious mix of verbs—preferably more active than passive.”

    I like the idea of a mixture. Definitely more active than passive, but the variety keeps the reader interested. Yes, even with a passive verb or two.

  12. In fact, the mixture is vital. A story can’t live on active verbs alone. It needs a healthy balance of passivity as well. What’s important is that we understand when and how to choose the passive voice over the active voice.

  13. And another reason…if you ever need to diagram your own sentences for grammar class, active voice is FAR EASIER to tree!

  14. You know, you have a good point there!

  15. K.M. I agree with everything you said! One of my pet peeves when editing is passive sentences. To me it’s a sign of weak writing. To think Webster’s dictionary have how many millions of words…and yet still many, would-be authors choose the easy way out. Like you, I’m not saying all passive sentences are bad, but like salt in a dish you are preparing…should be used sparingly. Regards J.L. Murphey

  16. Yes, I revise for active verbs. And I agree that the first choice of verbs is often just a starting point for finding the one that packs a punch.

  17. I think balance is good. To me, if something gets in the way of the flow, then it should be looked at more carefully. For every “rule” out there, we can always find an example of someone who ignored it and created a brilliant piece of writing.

  18. @J.L.: Good way of looking at it. Juicy, chewy, crunchy words are the joy of every author – and we should take full advantage of that banquet in whatever we’re writing.

    @Paul: The right words don’t always come knocking at our doors. Sometimes we have to don our hunting gear and go after them.

    @Kerrie: There’s only one rule in writing: Be brilliant. If the other so-called rules need to be trampled upon in order to achieve brilliance, by all means, trample.

  19. I use Find (ctrl + F) and enter the common forms of “to be” one after another, highlighting (in yellow) every instance of passivity AND of weak verb use (was, seemed, appeared, etc.) as well as the past continuous (was doing). This gives me a quick visual of the relative energy of a passage. Too much yellow means I’ll spend some time energizing key sentences.

    Often, a stronger verb can be found lurking in a passive sentence that just needs to be reconstructed. In other words, strong verbs often lurk in passive sentences. Dig them out, rewire them, plug them in.

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