Saturday, August 18

Spice Up Your Writing: The Passive Voice & Eliminating Passive Verbs

Spice Up Your Writing: The Passive Voice & Elimiating Passive Verbs

Elizabeth S. Craig writes about passive verbs:
What people sometimes confuse as passive voice is really the use of static verbs instead of dynamic (or active) verbs.  But frequently editors will ask you to reword sentences with static verbs because you could write a stronger sentence with dynamic verbs. Journalist Constance Hale wrote an interesting article for the New York Times in April about static and dynamic verbs and some subcategories of each (I loved her list of wimpy verbs.)

Although hunting down “to be” words isn’t necessarily going to help you create active voice sentence structure, if you have a lot of linking verbs in your story, you might want to make sure you’re showing, not telling.  So even though Anna was mad isn’t passive, it might make for stronger writing for you to say Anna slammed John’s plate on the table in front of him, making green peas fly off.  Frequently, when writers talk about finding linking verbs in their manuscript, they’re really advising us to avoid using weak verbs.
Read the rest of Elizabeth's article here: Passive Voice with Elizabeth S Craig.

If you're looking for a good article on the passive voice and how to avoid wimpy sentences I highly recommend Elizabeth's article. 

Another great article on how to avoid passive sentences is the one Elizabeth recommended: Make-or-Break Verbs by Constance Hale. Here's a sampling:
Fundamentally, verbs fall into two classes: static (to be, to seem, to become) and dynamic (to whistle, to waffle, to wonder). (These two classes are sometimes called “passive” and “active,” and the former are also known as “linking” or “copulative” verbs.) Static verbs stand back, politely allowing nouns and adjectives to take center stage. Dynamic verbs thunder in from the wings, announcing an event, producing a spark, adding drama to an assembled group.
. . . .
Power Verbs Dynamic verbs are the classic action words. They turn the subject of a sentence into a doer in some sort of drama. But there are dynamic verbs — and then there are dynamos. Verbs like has, does, goes, gets and puts are all dynamic, but they don’t let us envision the action. The dynamos, by contrast, give us an instant picture of a specific movement. Why have a character go when he could gambol, shamble, lumber, lurch, sway, swagger or sashay? Picking pointed verbs also allows us to forgo adverbs. Many of these modifiers merely prop up a limp verb anyway. Strike speaks softly and insert whispers. Erase eats hungrily in favor of devours. And whatever you do, avoid adverbs that mindlessly repeat the sense of the verb, as in circle around, merge together or mentally recall.
This reminds me of the advice Stephen King repeated gave in his book On Writing to use strong verbs and, as much as possible, avoid the use of adverbs and even adjectives.

Good writing!

Other articles you might like:
- Stephen King: 15 tips on how to become a better writer
- What To Write About: Fiction That Sells  
- Henry Miller's 11 Writing Commandments

Photo credit: photo by Vincepal on Flickr


  1. The power of English lies in verbs.

    So, too, German. If the language lacks the verb you need, you can cobble one together.

    Spanish and Portuguese have to make due with adverbs and adjectives.

    1. I imagine it is often quite a challenge to translate a book. Thanks for the comment!

  2. The said post here is very informative. I am impressed as to the ways in which the author delivered the message to us readers.

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  3. Another fine blog. The article that it contains offers good advice for…My pet-peeve alarm began buzzing, while I read it. As I scanned the data that began appearing across the holoscreen of the hub that connects it to various modules, I realized I must climb atop my soapbox once again. Sorry.…

    As I said, the advice offered is good. But I saw something in it that smells like the essence of a trend flowing out of fountains extolling the virtues of pop culture. For generations, various pied pipers have tooted songs designed to lure us into belieiving that we should go all out to succeed in worldly ways—become rich and famous at any cost. That trend has diluted and polluted various societies of our world in general and American society in particular. Mediocrity is now the new high ground. Being popular is all that matters. Appeal to the masses. Forget doing anything to shake things up. Glitz and glamour—and money—goodies for the body and spirit are more important than sustenance for the mind, heart, and soul….

    The best book that I have ever read is a historical novel that breaks assorted rules. Among its transgressions is the fact that at least a quarter of its contents bloom as “tell” rather than as “show.” Still, it somehow manages to remain an entralling book from beginning to end….

    Keep in mind that greatness seldom sprouts from worshipping arbitrary rules and strolling along paths well trodden.…

    From a personal perspective, it is impossible for me to write all show and no tell. That is because verifiction concerns individuals, peoples, worlds, places, things, creatures, societies, cultures, organizations, and nations that are alien to the good folks of our world. I have no choice but to tell the histories of the subjects mentioned and describe them (as succinctly as possible, while remaining substansive). That reminds me. If one writes purely to wow readers, impress critics, and sell books, then follow the rules pointing toward pop-litrature success. But I prefer to dare pen stories of substance and depth, which challenge readers to think and learn, while also entertaining them. Sure, I might prove unworthy of my aspirations. I also might fail because readers prove unworthy of the gifts that I offer. But the timid never accomplish anything even halfway worthwhile, much less grand. In order to succeed spectacularly, cultivate a vision and let its splendor nourish your soul and expand your mind then be willing to defy odds and wager everything on dreams big and bold….

    No matter how well I succeeded in the short run, I would feel as if I wasted my time and energy if posterity forgets the books that I struggle to write. I want to make a difference for the better in our world, during the short run and long run. Thus, I refuse to serve as a minion of orthodoxy in order to become a champion of mediocrity, fashioning pretty junk that flashes and sparkles then drifts away as puffs of smoke, disintegrating in the swirl of history’s wind….


Because of the number of bots leaving spam I had to prevent anonymous posting. My apologies. I do appreciate each and every comment.