Thursday, 19 May 2011

Three Tips for the Passive Writer

Definition of 'passive':  
  1.  not active, but acted upon. Suffering or receiving or enduring without either active sympathy or active resistance; without emotion or excitement; patient; not opposing; unresisting; as, passive obedience; passive submission.  
In a discussion about a 'passive' writer, I don't mean a writer who is a door mat, the victim of slings and arrows, blindly and passively following without question.
I mean a writer who writes passively. He or she still might be a doormat, but this blog is about his or her writing.

When I first started writing I didn't know I was passive. But as I learned my technqiue, I discovered that for many writers, writing 'passively' is a 'default' mode, a stale habit that needs to be overcome. 

What's the difference between 'active' and 'passive' voice? Recall, if you will, your grade school grammar classes:
Mary threw a party, and her guest enjoyed themselves. (Active - the subject of the sentence is actively doing something, and the subject comes before the verb)
The party was at Mary's house, and a good time was had by all. (Passive - the subject of the sentence is having something done to them, and the object comes before the verb)

So how do you know if you're writing passively, and how can you keep it in check? Here are three tips:

Don't overuse the verb 'to be'. This is a passive verb, and describes existence only. There is no action here. If your sentences are full of the word 'was' (see the passive sentence above - the verb 'was' is used twice) you are in passive mode. Example: "Harry was unhappy." (passive) "Harry slumped in the chair and sighed.' (active)
Show, don't tell. Every writer's mantra. When you are in passive mode, you are probably 'telling' what's going on, rather than showing. (See example re: Harry's unhappiness). Allowing your reader to experience your story by showing them what's happening is always preferable to simply telling them.
Avoid too many 'ing' verbs. You'll need some of them, of course, to strike a balance, but if you find you are using too many in a sentence, you are in passive mode. Example: "I was walking to work when I saw that my next door neighbour was chasing her dog." Grammatically, there is nothing wrong with this sentence, but it reads like an amateur wrote it. Revision: "I walked to work and saw my next door neighbour chase her dog." These are horrible examples, and the difference is subtle, but the second sentence is more 'active' and in the moment. Cutting back on 'ing' verbs automatically cuts out 'was' and other qualifiers like 'when' and 'that'. Just a more polished voice. 

And for those of you who write passively AND are door mats, you might want to try dumping a bit of that passivity and taking action over your life. Just sayin.


  1. P.S. There are too many 'ing' verbs in those last two phrases.

  2. I must keep working on active voice. I do think I'm getting much better at it. It's a toughie. (okay, so I'm passive in my comments).

    Great post.

  3. Hey, Nancy, thanks so much for adding me to your blog list! You're a fab girl detective author!

    aka, K.B. Owen