How to Identify Passive Writing

Jeanne Marie Leach is a non-fiction and fiction author, speaker, freelance fiction editor, and writing coach. She has written a book, WRITING BASICS FOR BEGINNERS, and whether you haven’t written a word, or you have almost completed your first manuscript, this book will give you the direction you need to take the next step toward publication.

She believes everyone who has a book idea inside them can learn how to write it; they simply need to be shown how to begin. The task may appear too large and overwhelming. This book starts at the beginning of your writing journey, and will give you the confidence and direction to see the book through to those final two words – THE END.

How to Identify Passive Writing

(Taken from WRITING BASICS FOR BEGINNERS)

By Jeanne Marie Leach

Fiction authors are being taught that the verb “was” and its forms are
considered passive writing, but it actually falls under the heading of passive voice. I teach this in my class on Editing Fiction.
Below are a couple excerpts from the class.

Active vs. passive

One of the most notable mistakes used by beginning writers is overusing the
word was and its tenses. This culprit is the king of passive writing. I’ve
read books in which these were used many times. What ends up happening is
the book begins sounding like a first grade reader.

She was tired.

He was angry.

Then she was sorry.

He was glad, etc.

To delete the word was from a client’s manuscript, you are going to
have to completely rewrite the sentence. In doing so, you will spice up the
writing, bringing it out of the ordinary and passive and into descriptive
and active.

Using the examples I just gave, getting rid of “was” will cause the
sentences to sing.

She was tired. = Her body ached as she climbed the stairs to the house.

He was angry. = His eyes shot fire at her and his face contorted into a
sneer.

Then she was sorry. = She knew she’d done wrong and her heart convicted her
of it.

He was glad. = His huge grin and the sparkle in his eyes bespoke of his
gladness.

These examples were simplified on purpose. Now consider the following
examples:

Jane was angry at her brother for telling her parents she was the
one who’d caused the stain on the carpet.

There wasn’t enough time to think before she ran after John.

The car was so shiny.

Bart was about to run after her when she turned around and looked
him in the eyes.

For the most part, there’s nothing wrong with these sentences, but passive
writing is considered lazy writing. In the first sentence, you know the
basics, but exactly how angry had Jane become? We don’t know; the author
doesn’t tell us. To change passive writing into active, the author will need
to rewrite the sentence, and it often means expanding the sentence into two
or three. You could allow an author to leave the sentence as it is, but it’s
better to encourage them to make it come alive. You can get inside Jane’s
head and really know what she’s thinking.

Here are the same sentences, only written to be more active instead of
passive:

Jane frowned and stomped her foot. “You little brat! You had no
right to tell Mom and Dad I spilled my juice on the rug. I’m going to ring
your stupid little neck when I catch you.”

John left and she leaned against the door. A moment later, he
heard a car door close. I can’t let him go like this. She ran outside and
down the sidewalk. “John, I’m sorry! Please, don’t go!”

He saw his reflection in the new, candied apple red paint job, and
the depth of the shine let him believe there had to be at least eight coats
of paint on the car.

Bart’s heart couldn’t let her simply walk away like this. He
wanted to go after her, but he couldn’t make himself take that first step.
She turned and looked him in the eyes, and at that moment he knew they would
be together forever.

Do you see the difference between the first set of sentences and the second?
Passive writing tells the basics, but by getting rid of “was,” the author is
forced to let the reader know the depth of what is happening.

Now don’t go off on a “was” hunt and eliminate them all. There are times
when this is the only word that would work in a particular sentences. Ask
yourself if the sentence leaves any unanswered questions, and that should
help you determine if it is in passive voice.

Visit Jeanne’s website for more information about Jeanne’s editing and coaching services.

Good advice–something I keep hammering away at in my classes and editing too. Thank you for being my guest author today, Jeanne!

Jeanne is also the author of the novels SHADOW OF DANGER and THE PLIGHT OF MATTIE GORDON, available from Treble Heart Books.

She also has a story and a devotional in the anthology, Fiction and Truth: Stories that Speak to the Soul. Available from the editor Kathy Ide.


Jeanne Marie Leach is a non-fiction and fiction author, speaker, freelance fiction editor, and writing coach. She believes everyone who has a book idea inside them can learn how to write it; they simply need to be shown how to begin. The task may appear too large and overwhelming. This book starts at the beginning of your writing journey, and will give you the confidence and direction to see the book through to those final two words – THE END.

Jeanne has written a book, WRITING BASICS FOR BEGINNERS, and whether you haven’t written a word, or you have almost completed your first manuscript, this book will give you the direction you need to take the next step toward publication.

How to Identify Passive Writing

By Jeanne Marie Leach

Fiction authors are being taught that the verb “was” and its forms are
considered passive writing. I teach this in my class on Editing Fiction.
Below are a couple excerpts.

Active vs. passive

One of the most notable mistakes used by beginning writers is overusing the
word was and its tenses. This culprit is the king of passive writing. I’ve
read books in which these were used many times. What ends up happening is
the book begins sounding like a first grade reader.

She was tired.

He was angry.

Then she was sorry.

He was glad, etc.

To delete the word was from a client’s manuscript, you are going to
have to completely rewrite the sentence. In doing so, you will spice up the
writing, bringing it out of the ordinary and passive and into descriptive
and active.

Using the examples I just gave, getting rid of “was” will cause the
sentences to sing.

She was tired. = Her body ached as she climbed the stairs to the house.

He was angry. = His eyes shot fire at her and his face contorted into a
sneer.

Then she was sorry. = She knew she’d done wrong and her heart convicted her
of it.

He was glad. = His huge grin and the sparkle in his eyes bespoke of his
gladness.

These examples were simplified on purpose. Now consider the following
examples:

Jane was angry at her brother for telling her parents she was the
one who’d caused the stain on the carpet.

There wasn’t enough time to think before she ran after John.

The car was so shiny.

Bart was about to run after her when she turned around and looked
him in the eyes.

For the most part, there’s nothing wrong with these sentences, but passive
writing is considered lazy writing. In the first sentence, you know the
basics, but exactly how angry had Jane become? We don’t know; the author
doesn’t tell us. To change passive writing into active, the author will need
to rewrite the sentence, and it often means expanding the sentence into two
or three. You could allow an author to leave the sentence as it is, but it’s
better to encourage them to make it come alive. You can get inside Jane’s
head and really know what she’s thinking. This is much the same idea as Pam
taught in her Deep POV lessons.

Here are the same sentences, only written to be more active instead of
passive:

Jane frowned and stomped her foot. “You little brat! You had no
right to tell Mom and Dad I spilled my juice on the rug. I’m going to ring
your stupid little neck when I catch you.”

John left and she leaned against the door. A moment later, he
heard a car door close. I can’t let him go like this. She ran outside and
down the sidewalk. “John, I’m sorry! Please, don’t go!”

He saw his reflection in the new, candied apple red paint job, and
the depth of the shine let him believe there had to be at least eight coats
of paint on the car.

Bart’s heart couldn’t let her simply walk away like this. He
wanted to go after her, but he couldn’t make himself take that first step.
She turned and looked him in the eyes, and at that moment he knew they would
be together forever.

Do you see the difference between the first set of sentences and the second?
Passive writing tells the basics, but by getting rid of “was,” the author is
forced to let the reader know the depth of what is happening.

Now don’t go off on a “was” hunt and eliminate them all. There are times
when this is the only word that would work in a particular sentences. Ask
yourself if the sentence leaves any unanswered questions, and that should
help you determine if it is in passive voice.

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Published in: on December 12, 2009 at 7:21 am  Comments (5)  

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thank you. This was so very, very interesting. The ideas make so much sense. It makes the idea of going over the manuscripts again worthwhile.

  2. A great piece of work and fantastic information for all writers. Thank you Jeanne and Heidi. Truly enjoyed this blog.

    Gwyn Ramsey
    http://gwynramsey.blogspot.com

  3. Thanks for the nice interview, Heidi. You’re right about never having enough good examples for how to write better. Jeanne “showed” rather than “told.” Well done. Have a great Christmas! Jane

  4. Great tips! I know “passive writing” plagues me constantly. I wish I had Jeanne’s sharp eye!

  5. I would be interested in your book, I’d love to know how much it is, and where I can get it. Also, are your classes online? How much are those as well.
    My e-mail is not valid, so if you could leave all that in a comment on my main blog, http://www.farmgirlathome.blogspot.com, that would be great!!!

    Have a Merry Christmas!!!


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