Self-Editing Tip #4: Aggressively Passive Voice

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I described some wordy writing once as being like “taking a train all the way around the world just to get to the next town over.” Not only does writing in the passive voice add unnecessary extra words, but it sometimes can make a sentence seem tiresome and confusing. If this happens for an entire paragraph, or an entire page even, the reader may find themselves distracted and missing some essential details of the story. Or they might put down a book altogether.

So these are some ways to stay away from using the passive voice (and other nastily tricky styles) to keep your writing succinct and to the point.

  • was
    • This is the most obvious sign of the passive voice. He was sitting by the window. She was crying in the corner. He was walking down the street. These are simple examples, but they should be changed to: He sat by the window. She cried in the corner. He walked down the street.
    •  Sometimes this is acceptable to use when relating what your character sees, feels, or notices about another person. She turned around to see that the man was watching her. If the passive voice is not used regularly throughout the piece, this is one effective way to show that someone had been doing something and continues to do so.
  • continued to, started to, began to
    • These can be a burden on any writing. The man continued to punch him, over and over. My mother continued to look for her favorite shirt. ‘Continued to’ is a phrase that basically means nothing. When you’re telling a story and describing an action, “continued to” repeats what the reader has already read. Even when you’re trying to say that the character just won’t stop doing what they’re doing, it can be done in a much better way with a new image. The man hit my brother on the street corner. I ran over to them and tried to stop him, but the man continued to punch him, over and over. Get rid of “continued to” and try another angle. The man hit my brother on the street corner, but when I ran over to stop him, he wouldn’t let up. It’s shorter, more succinct, and does not repeat an image we’ve already seen.
    • ‘Started to’ and ‘began to’ are even more useless, in my opinion. My boss began to scream at me from behind his chair. If you’re telling us what a character is doing, it’s implied that they haven’t already been doing it. My boss screamed at me from behind his chair. That is the start of a new action for this character, so we don’t need to be told that the character ‘began to’ anything.
    • Basically, if you can take out any of these three phrases from a sentence and it still works, don’t use any of them. Redundancy can kill any story, no matter how fantastic the plot or the characters.
  • of
    • This is one of the most frequently used words in the English language, along with ‘the’ and ‘and’. But using this instead of possessive nouns (Harry’s) or possessive pronouns (his) is something that really drags a reader around in circles. He was then introduced to Heather, the daughter of his boss at the record store. This is a great example of using both the passive “was” and extra wording around a possessive noun. Then his friend introduced him to Heather, his boss’s daughter. In addition to cutting out the extra words and more thoroughly getting to the point, staying away from the passive voice and using “of” brings your readers closer to the characters, closer to seeing through their eyes. That will keep them from losing interest in characters or plots with which they have a difficult time identifying.

A lot of these can be pretty difficult to catch sometimes. But if you know how to look for the identifying characteristics, like the word “was” in your sentences, you can start to train yourself to stay away from them. Play with the sentences, see what you can change around to say the same thing with less words and more vivid imagery.

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