Passive Writing and How It Can Kill a Story


How many times has someone told you your writing is passive and you sat there, scratching your head, wondering what that meant?  I know it happened to me a lot but no one really explained to me how to fix it so I kept making the same mistake and getting the same feedback over and over again.  It wasn’t until someone pointed it out to me when it finally sank in what I’d been doing wrong all along.  The great thing was and is, once you spot it and know how to fix it…wow!  It’s like having that V-8 moment. So, I thought I’d pass on my revelation to others and if it helps one person out there, then I will be so totally stoked and happy.

So, what is passive writing?  In a nutshell, it’s telling, not showing.  It has the tendency to leave the reader isolated from the story – almost as if they are being fed the story than experiencing it for themselves.    How can you tell your writing is passive?  Look for telltale words like “was”, “were”, “had”, “felt” and forms of the verb ‘to be’, for example, is, am, be, being or been.

Even the best plot in the universe can abandon a reader if it is cumbersome with passive writing.  So, how can an author fix this?  Well, make the passive verb active.

Let’s take an example from my own writing:

David blew into his freezing hands and then dragged the empty bin up the tree-lined drive to his home – a white, columned antebellum mansion he shared with his godmother, Lily. David took the front steps of the veranda in one long stride (being as they were the shortest distance to warmth) and entered the house.

What a mouthful, huh?  “Being as they were…”  What the heck was I thinking when I wrote that?

Here are the same two sentences revised:

David stormed up the drive to the 1800s white-columned mansion, flung the bin in the side yard and took the front steps of the veranda in one long stride.

Hmm…I think the second example is far better, tighter, and to the point.

Here are some other examples:

Passive sentence:  My homework was eaten by Toby.

Active sentence:  Toby ate my homework.

or

Passive:  The sun was shining.

Active:  The sun shone.

I found when I changed my writing from passive to active writing, the story took on a whole new life.  It became tighter, quicker.  This isn’t to say that you need to do away with all was’s and were’s.  It just means to be cognizant of how the words are used and when they are used and if the story would be better if changed. 

There are times, however, that passive writing is what you want.  You’ll find this if you are wanting to place emphasis on the object of an action more than the subject, in which case you will want to place the object of the action first in the sentence (make it the subject of the sentence).  This usually requires a passive verb.  For example:

The hotel added a security camera.

 The security camera was added to the hotel.

 Because the emphasis is on the security camera, the second choice would be the best to use. 

 Again, think about what you want to say and decide the best way to do it.  Not all passive sentences are bad, just when they’re not good.

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2 thoughts on “Passive Writing and How It Can Kill a Story

  1. What a wonderful way to teach what passive writing is. I have a tendency to let it get into my writing and your post helps a lot by reminding me. Writing is such a struggle and constant work.

    Like

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