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Strengthen Your Voice

Rosalie Skinner posted a great article several weeks ago about what agents and editors hate to see in manuscripts. One of the things the agents mentioned was passive voice. Passive voice is one of my pet peeves, too, and I’ve given up on many books because of the overuse of it.

But solving the problem of passive voice isn’t as easy as just searching for forms of “to be”. Besides the fact that you’ll pull your hair out looking for every “was” and “is,” you won’t necessarily find all instances of passive voice this way. Passive voice is more complicated than just “sentences with was”. It’s the way the sentence is constructed that makes it active or passive.

Passive vs. Active

Active voice is a sentence where the subject performs the verb action upon a direct object. Passive voice is a sentence where the subject is being acted upon. Consider the difference:

The knight lowered his lance.
“Knight” is the subject; “lance” is the object.

The lance was lowered by the knight.
“Lance” is still the object, but the reversal of the sentence means the knight is now in a passive position—being acted upon.

The choir must have sung thirty songs.
“Choir” is the subject; “songs” are the object.

Thirty songs must have been sung by the choir.
“Choir” is still the subject, but now the songs and verb are acting upon it, making the sentence passive.

The problem with passive voice is that it’s a bit tricky to edit for. In the first example, “was lowered” is a passive verb construction, but how many times would you use that combination in a manuscript? Not many, most likely. You have to edit sentence by sentence to really weed out passive voice, because “to be” verbs are NOT always bad, nor do they always indicate passive voice. The same goes for other weak verbs. Consider the following examples:

That tree is quite beautiful.
The king wasn’t very intelligent.
A dozen children were inside the school.
He has a large library.
They had never seen the ocean.

The mistake a lot of readers and writers make (and I suspect agents and editors as well) is to assume that ALL weak or common verbs indicate passive voice. That’s simply not accurate. Passive vs. active has to do with sentence construction, not just the presence of weak verbs.

Now, there are a few tip offs that you can search for to help you find the worst passive offenders; there was, there were, was being, were being, have been, has been are commonly used phrases that will help you find passive voice.

Beyond Passive vs. Active

I’m not an agent or editor, so I can’t speak to what they see when they read manuscripts, but in my experience, passive voice is not the biggest offender in the writing samples I read. Rather, I think it’s better to say that weak verb construction is the big offender. Passive voice is part of that, but there are other offenders as well.

One of the worst offenders I see is a form of “to be” or “has” with an –ing verb. Look at a couple of altered examples from above:

A dozen children were hiding inside the school.
He has been amassing a large library.

At first glance, one might call these “passive,” but they aren’t. They are, however, weak constructions—unless you intend to write a progressive verb tense. There’s nothing wrong with a progressive tense, but often, these –ing verbs can be altered to another tense without changing the meaning of the overall passage.

A dozen children hid inside the school.
He amassed a large library.

It’s also fair to say that many writers, especially beginning writers, use weak verbs that “tell” rather than strong verbs that “show.” A few more alterations to my above examples:

The tree blossomed with pink and purple flowers every spring.
The king’s tutors struggled to teach him even rudimentary academic skills.
They lived across the mountains, more than a month’s journey from the shore.

Most of my alterations do increase word count, but the sentences are more descriptive and specific. However, I think it’s important to note that there is nothing wrong with the unedited versions. The first examples are perfectly fine, and in context, they may even be preferable. After a paragraph of intense description, the reader might need the “breather” of a few simple sentences.

In two weeks, I’ll talk more about how varying verb constructions can give your writing a rhythm all its own.



  1. Avatar Overlord says:

    Fantastic article Amy – I think is going to be a breeding ground for good authors with the help of authors like yourself 🙂

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