Posted in Writing

Why Your Verbs Should Be Active, Not Passive



In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,

Verbs come in two types, active and passive. With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen. You avoid the passive tense.

The day I learned to avoid the passive verb, my writing got significantly better. For the longest time I wrote my sentence instinctively, not paying attention to such trivial matters as active verbs vs. passive verbs. Not paying attention to the size of my paragraphs or length of my sentences. I just wrote what felt right. What seemed to flow the best.

But then a few years ago a friend of mine pointed out to me the need, always, for active verbs, and I looked over a recent short story I had written, a story that had been rejected more than twenty times over the course of a year. I spent some time reading through the piece looking specifically for any evidence of passive verbs, and, well, I gasped. There were passive verbs all over the place. And while I didn’t change every single one of those verbs to active — I believe you should delete most passive verbs, not necessarily all — active verbs significantly enhanced that story… as they have enhanced all of my writing ever since.

You’ve seen the passive verb. You’ve smelled it from afar, probably. If you’ve ever taken a writing workshop, you’ve probably seen it all over the place. It’s something that’s an easy fix but that can also make an otherwise interesting story read like death.

Here are a couple basic examples of active vs. passive…

Active: Charlie hated the bully.

Passive: The bully was hated by Charlie.

Ugh, I know, right? Isn’t that first sentence so much better? Notice that the word “was” is often the word that links words together in a sentence with a passive verb, so sometimes you can’t find them that way, but always. Sometimes “was” needs to be there.

Active: The critic wrote a funny review of the movie.

Passive: A funny review of the movie was written by the critic.

Notice “was” again. And notice that this example of the passive verb isn’t quite as clunky as that first example, although it’s definitely still clunky. I could see this second example getting past an editor, getting past your own eyes. But if at all possible, you’d want to write it in the active form. It just sounds better.

Because here’s the deal with passive verbs: they slow down the pacing, and they often reads awkwardly and amateurish. Sometimes when you’re in the zone and writing fast, you don’t catch the passive verb in the act, but when you read through the sentence later, especially if you’ve let the manuscript rest for a few weeks, you’ll often come across a few passive verbs that just pop off the page, and not in a good way. You’ll fix the passive verb to active quickly, before anyone looking over your shoulder could possibly see you put down on the page.

But other times passive verbs can be subtle, not as noticeable. You might read through your manuscript ten times over the course of a year and not catch a couple. I’m currently on the seventh draft of my MFA thesis novel, and I’d bet there are a few passive verbs in there that need to be changed. I’d bet every novel I’ve ever written has ten or more that somehow never got fixed throughout the revising process. Again, you don’t need to change every single one of them. And remember, the passive voice isn’t wrong. It’s not grammatically incorrect. Sometimes a sentence, for whatever reason, sounds better in the passive voice, usually when you want an action to be considered subtle or inconsequential.

But for the most part, for the sake of your writing, you want to write with active verbs, and whether you’re working with active verbs consistently in your first draft or changing passive verbs to active verbs in your later revisions, your writing will get better. And you’ll be well on your way.

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