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Knowledge of our past is our inheritance. What we do with that knowledge will shape our destinies...

Monday, September 21, 2015

3 Tips to Avoid Passive Voice

Every newbie writer struggles with passive voice. We've all been there. But it's difficult to define what passive voice is without sounding like an 8th grade grammar teacher (or just a geek). Sometime try explaining passive voice to a non-writer. There's a two-hour conversation that will leave you contemplating going the way of Anthony and Cleopatra.

Anyway, I'll give you a quick definition but it's by no means comprehensive. My definitions tend to be directly tied to my tips, so...

Passive Voice: When your narrative describes indirectly or in a round-about way, instead directly and strongly.

*Understand that this is different than telling vs. showing. That's an entirely different problem that I may revisit next week.*

To avoid passive voice:

This explains it WAY better than I do!
1) Describe things directly and using the senses of one of your characters. "A strange sound was heard from the cave" is not as strong as "Bob heard a strange sound emanating from the cave." Why is that? For one thing, saying who specifically heard it grounds the sensation in the POV character, which means the reader can identify with it more easily. If "a sound is heard," it begs the question, who heard it? Furthermore, the second example allows you to use a word to describe how the sound was being heard (i.e. emanating).

2) Explain action as directly as possible with as few words as you can manage. Returning to our friend, Bob, "Bob ran down the street" is much stronger than "Bob was running down the street." The second one is used a lot by amateur writers because it's past tense, but the former is also past tense, and it's stronger because it's not passive voice.

Example 1. Anytime you use 'was' before the action word and put an 'ing' on the end (i.e. was running) you are using passive voice. Granted, there may be a few exceptions when this is necessary, but I guarantee 99% of the time, that's not the case. Anytime you catch yourself doing this in your writing, ask yourself if using the past...what would that be? Participle?...would work. Ran instead of 'was running.' If the sentence still makes sense, trust me, use that version. It's stronger and you won't be accused of using passive voice.

Example 2. Don't say that one character observed another one doing something; just say they did it! Don't say, "Bob saw Fred sit down." Just say "Fred sat down." If Bob is the POV character anyway, the fact that he's doing the observing is implied. You don't need to state it. All it does is jack up your work count and stray into passive voice.

3) Don't use "seemed" unless the character is unsure. I've mentioned this before in other posts, but it's one of my biggest pet peeves. Newbie writers often overuse the word seemed. 'He seemed to be walking...' 'She seemed to have a headache...' 'I seemed to think I was a writer!!!' Seemed implies that the character is unsure. So if your bff seems to be sad but you aren't sure and need to find out, then it's fine to use it. But if someone is walking down the street, either they are or they aren't. They can't 'seem' to be walking down the street.  Every time you use seemed, ask yourself if your character (or you!) is sure of what's happening. If they are, you don't need seemed. Delete it!

That's it for this post. Not comprehensive in the least, but just a few things I've seen over and over again while editing. Hope this helps a few of you.

How about you? What are your tips for avoiding passive voice?


  1. Great tips-- I think I slip into passive sometimes without recognizing it. I loved your tips-- simple and clarifying. It seems..er.. is helpful! ;)

  2. Passive voice is a huge problem for me, so thanks for the tip Liesel! I especially like the "was" and "ing" rule. Very helpful indeed.

  3. Wonderful tips, Liesel! I saved your post to my grammar and writing file so I can pull it up as needed. Thanks!

  4. I'm a natural at passive voice. Having written tons of software manuals, it's a difficult habit to break. There are benefits to it, but rarely is it beneficial in fiction. Nice! Linking to this in my next Sunday Surfing post!

  5. Passive voice is something people normally avoid. It is recommended to use less of passive voice in one`s writing. Sometimes, for a change, it is not bad and makes writing a little different. http://royalediting.com/usage-tips-of-passive-voice There are some tips on how to use passive voice and do it right once you decided on using some in your writing.