Write Byte

See Where They Hide: Spotting Passive Voice
Defining and Refining Your Words for Brisk Story Telling

(September 25, 2000)

I love to edit my own work, make it better, stronger, clearer. I look forward to that as much as writing the first draft. I learned how to write without passive voice because when I was first learning to write, I had over a dozen members of a critique group who were non-romance readers and writers. They didn’t care for it, had a 15 year old image of it in their minds, flowery prose, melodrama, creamy supple thighs, etc. They were tactful in their critiques, though painfully brutal and yet, in that, these same writers showed me my flaws and several different approaches to writing a particular story. One especially helpful writer was a published poet. She showed me how to choose the words with the most power. Another had a Ph.D. in English and taught me where passive words lay hidden. To this day, those two writers are sitting on my shoulders say, “Cut that! Chose a better way to say that. Get rid of those conjunction and you can make that sentence speak stronger for you!”

Learning to recognize passive voice is part of being a writer. The skill comes by editing yourself over and over, being highly critical of your own work and reading authors who do not write in passive voice and see how they do it. (A few quick examples are Kathleen Kane, Julie Garwood, Katherine Sutcliffe, Jill Sheldon, Jillian Hunter, Charlotte Hughes, and me.) By the end of this session you will be more aware of passives, and know a few ways on how to change it.

Passive voice means slowing the reading. Eliminating passives will make your sentences crisper, push your images in the forefront. You will also say more on a page. Passive voice also means telling when you should be showing. Sometimes writers are not even aware that they do it. And this is not always the rule of thumb for every sentence, every paragraph. But it’s sure close to it.

Here's an example: She was walking through the forest. This is passive and telling.
Even better would be: She walked through the forest.
A better way would be combining image and idea......

Dry leaves and branches crunched beneath her feet as she stepped into the wooded copse.
More words are used, yes, but none are passive, and there's no telling. And you can almost smell the air, hear the noise. Eliminating passive voice can also give your writing vibrancy and an image.

Spot the Passive Voice: He could feel her fingers gliding into his hair.
Find it? He could feel instead of he felt.
Or better yet: her fingers slid into his hair, driving a warmth over his skin.
That way you are in his POV and yet experiencing the sensations.

Alarms should go off in your head when you hear forms of “to be.” They are infiltrators. They are your enemy! When you see them, fire at will to eliminate them.

Passive PhraseExample at workBetter Options
could bealready givenalready given
would beHe would be arrivinghe'd arrive
He arrived.
started toHe started to head for the door.He headed for the door.
began toShe began to put away the groceries.She emptied the grocery bag, tearing it to get to the bottom.
seemed toThe image seemed to shimmer.The image shimmered. (It either shimmers or it doesn't - choose one.)
------ These next two were so foreign to me I had to call a friend for help. ------
of whichShe thought of his many conquests, of which she was only one.She was one of his many conquest, she knew.
with whichShe picked up the pen, with which she had written so many letters.She picked up the pen, a tool of a dozen innocent letters. *
that hadThat had been the last time she had seen him.That was the last time she’d seen him.
prepared toHe prepared to leave. He gathered his things, striding to the door.
in order toIn order to gain access to the files, To gain access, she. . . .
attempted toShe attempted to pull him upright. Her fingers fisting tightly in his shirt sleeves, she yanked him upright. (That way we get the visual image.)
* Although I have never used it, this tense is often used in Regency Romances to give a "high brow" tone to the sentence structure.

Only use phrases such as: had been, would have been, it had been when necessary to relate past events. There is a way to do retrospect or a flashback and keep it non-passive, which I'll share later.

Words such as that, which, was, when, would, could should make you take a step back and look at your work again. Ask, “Can I restructure my sentences to read better, clearer?”

One of the best ways to learn to spot passive voice is reading aloud and also going over your work with a green highlighter, (yellow doesn’t show up as well) and mark the forms of to be, every single one.

Substitute conjunctions like she’d or he’d instead of he had, she had. It shaves down the passive tone when it’s absolutely necessary. And it reads brisker, sounds brisker, although it’s the same form.

She would have thought changes to She’d have thought. She could not go. She couldn’t go.

If you are in retrospect, telling something of the past, the first line can set the scene and then the rest can be non-passive. (I learned this from Gary Provost.) Here's an example:

He’d been in her life, had been her entire world when she was eighteen and in love and thinking only of herself. Blonde and handsome, he walked into her college mixer, his dark eyes zeroing in on her alone. From that moment she lost the battle with her heart.

We’ve gone from drawing you into the past, but keeping the images fresh, so its not full of “had been’s” that slow the reading. A simple transition, with noise, a harsh memory they want to avoid or someone calling to this character, will draw you into the present.

Changing your sentence structure can eliminate passive writing:

Mark leaned against a large oak whose canopy enveloped most of the front yard and studied what remained of Caroline Dunkirk’s home.

First, "whose" is possessive tense (trees don’t possess) and the last phrase is misplaced in the structure, but lets work at this. In the last part of the sentence, what it is that you want the reader to remember?

Mark leaned against a large oak, the canopy above enveloping him and most of the front yard as he studied what remained of Caroline Dunkirk’s home.

Cut the conjunctions and close up the sentence: Wind snapped at the trees and turned the leaves back. (only slightly passive)
Wind snapped at the trees, turning leaves back as if to wave winter on by. (non-passive, tighter and a clearer image)
We know now that not only is it windy, but it's cold.

The dreaded laundry list of description.

He was lanky, tall, with rugged features, dark eyes and blond hair.
It's dull, lifeless, and a waste of words that offer nothing. My personal rule of thumb is to give the reader an image during the first meet or when the character first steps on stage. But this image should always comes from the opposite character's POV. If it’s the hero I want you to see, you will see him through the heroine’s eyes. But never stall the reading with description when action is necessary. Go to the action, stay with it till there is a lull, then of course, take it from an opposite characters POV.

"A flock of quail burst through the tree tops, thrashing the gray sky in wild escape.

An instant later, a rider bolted from the forest, demonic, darker than dark, his hair, his tricorn, in the cape snapping against the wind like falcon wings, in the magnificent beast he commanded at a break-neck speed.

And he was bearing down on her, saddle bags slapping, hooves churning the pasture black.

This is on page one of my historical Rebel Heart. It’s an image. Later there is a detailed description of the hero from the heroine’s POV while they are hiding out on page 7 or 8 And even then its more image and sensation than physical description. The story moves when I want it, and slows when I need it. Notice there was only one necessary passive phase: And he was baring down. I could have said ‘he bore down on her,’ but that is the wrong tense and did not have the impact I wanted then. Which was a scare tactic.

A few pointers finding the scattered bits of passive or extras that linger.

  • Another way to eliminate passive is in the ‘he said, she said’ stage. If your characters are so different their patterns of speech are different, then you don’t need anything more than facial expression or body language in reaction or internal thought to push the scene along. The example is from my time travel novella, Timeless Masquerade, the characters are in a boat on a river at night.
    “You’re lost, aren’t you?” He arched a brow, his look so childishly defensive she wanted to laugh. “Come on Captain, be the first man to admit he needs directions.” She nudged his leg.

    By God, but her smile was enchanting, lighting her entire face, Royce thought, his gaze sketching her features. Yet in the next heartbeat, he dismissed it and focused on his purpose. He would do well not to relax about her, but use her knowledge as best he could. “Know you of the Sweet Briar Plantation?”

    OR

    Royce recognized the pattern of her thoughts playing across her face and bent to whisper, “Be assured, lass, if you do not navigate correctly, your time in silent bondage will appear like a holiday.”

    She sent him an exasperated look, not at all scared. “Do you get a charge out of threatening unarmed women?”

    A moment passed as he tried to understand her comment, then gave her a long velvety look. “You are not without weapons, lass.”

    Clear, no he said, she said’s. There are seven other people in this boat with them.

  • Avoid saying the character’s name again and again in the Ping-Pong address, we like to call it. If you’ve made it clear two people are having a private conversation, cut the names when you can. Read it loud to be certain you haven’t cut too much and lacked clarity.

  • Overuse of one body tag.
    One flaw I had in my last historical, The Irish Princess, in the manuscript stage, was over use of a mannerism: the hero running his fingers through his hair. My critique partner mentioned the poor man would be bald by chapter 20, and I deleted it from the draft. Yet when I chose to leave it in, it had tremendous impact.

    Be careful of too many “his sinister glare” or “her quivering lips.” It wears thin on the reader after a while.

  • Don’t allow your characters to do things that are physically impossible. Ex: “That’s right,”(comma) he chuckled. Turn that into a positive statement. His lips curved a fraction. “That’s right, darlin’.”

  • Over-writing breeds passive voice and an adjective/adverb sewer.
    “Get out !” she yelled angrily. Or she laughed cheerfully, he slammed the door angrily, he dashed quickly.
    Yelled, laughed, slammed and dashed already show what you want to say. (Loud, happy, angry and quick)

    Now if you say she laughed, a tinge of bitterness edging the sound, we get a different image. And it has a different purpose. A good way to get this skill up is to try writing a few lines about showing, say, an angry doctor, without using the words "angry" or "doctor". Or a impatient mother, etc. you get the idea.

  • Redundancy in the same sentence. It’s a sneaky little thing
    He lifted his hand, reaching out to brush a curl from her temple. becomes He reached, his fingers brushing a curl . . .

  • Most important is the point of view you take in your story.
    I cannot emphasize this enough. Never type a word that is not in character pov. Your reader is seeing your story through your character’s eyes and if you go off and write this really lovely prose that makes a tear come to your eye, that’s fine . . . if your character talks that way.

    It is in your best interest, to make your reader (who is the editor) like your character, sympathize and you cannot do that in omniscient POV. It’s the quickest way to fall into passive over writing. Its being told, like sitting around the campfire, listening to the counselor. It yanks the reader out of the story. It’s not in character POV.

  • Characters don’t think of themselves as Diane or Steve. It’s he or she, I, me. Another spot to cut or re-write.

    Remaining in Character POV will help you in toning down the over writing because you must ask yourself if your character would go on like this? Is it their voice or my need to write the prose? And how can I get this point out in the shortest way possible if I have to do it in this Character’s POV? This yanking the reader out of the POV is found in description and often in character descriptions and written by writers who have not learned their own ‘voice,’ which to me, is not having a voice on paper at all, but allowing your characters to tell the story. If the reader cares about your characters, they want to hear them talk, not you.

  • Sinking sentences. Try not to add too heavy an image or your reader will have a hard time reading and put the book down. It’s supposed to flow. Give a short description and let the reader imagination fill in the rest.

    Example of what not to do:

    Even the chirping of the ubiquitous (every day) pigeons became quiescent (quiet)
    Other than that the words of that sentence are heavy, don’t flow, and you could say that so much shorter and clearer, the passive comes in "became."
    Others are:
    She gasped! Oh no! He is sinking into a volatile cesspool of fever.
    He pressed his palm to his forehead to staunch the flow of carnelian life fluid.

    Volatile cesspool? Carnelian life fluid? Just say blood. Blood is a strong word. Why say Metropolis when city gives the image? Why say mammoth mountain when mountain alone says what you need? Lose the thesaurus. When you sell your first book, and they want the second ASAP you will loose the chance for the luxury of thumbing through a thesaurus, trust me.

  • Shorten when you can. If nothing happens from the walk from the car to the house to the bedroom, don’t give every step and detail.
    She closed the car door, striding up the stone walk. Two minutes later in her bedroom, she flung her clothes off as she headed into the bathroom.

1. Read authors who do not write in passive voice and dissect their works to see how they do it.

2. Look for immediacy in each sentence. He could feel/he felt.

3. Be in tune to your alarms and avoid forms of to be. If you type ‘that, which, was, when, would and could’ you must step back for a second look to make the prose flow without those stagnators. Along with the others I first mentioned.

4. Avoid over writing, over use of body tags, redundancy. Check to see if you are saying the same thing in merely a different way. Or offering too much detail and not giving the reader credit for having a few brain cells to rub together. Detail is good in intimate scenes, your story is a romance after all.

5. When you take another look at your manuscript, try cutting 10 words from your opening 2 paragraphs. Then try to cut twenty words from each page but restructuring your sentences. And the next three tips are the rules I’ve followed from the first moment I started writing.

6. Each scene must bring change, in character or goal or motivation or conflict. (which lead me to…)

7. If it does not move it, lose it.

8. Revise creatively. Combine images and ideas.

9. Never sacrifice passion for precision.

-- Amy J. Fetzer

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