Passive Sentences

The number one comment I have heard editors give writers is, “too many passive sentences.” If you browse publisher’s web sites and check out their pages on most often reasons for rejection, you will see listed somewhere in their bullet points, “too many passive sentences.”

In my numerous critique groups, this is my most used comment to the other members, both published and unpublished. The reason for my pet peeve is I once packed my stories with passive sentences until I learned, (from other writers), how much stronger the sentences became when I eliminated “was” and “were.” These two words are not very descriptive. As writers armed with the entire English vocabulary, we should pack our work with as much illustration as possible and not fall back on passive verbs. About the only time I disagree with comments on my writing from other critique group members is when they suggest I rewrite a sentence to the passive voice. Using “was” and “were” is a lazy habit that is easy to change.

You may think you do not use that many passive sentences so this post does not relate to you. If that is the case, take this simple test.

Select a sample of your writing, two or three pages to start. In the find function, (crtl f, in MS Word), search for the word “was” and select “Find All.” Click the Highlight button to color all those words yellow. Try the search one more time only find the word “were.” Highlight these words in blue. Cancel out of the search function and take a look at your pages. Are they lit up like a Christmas tree? If so, you have too many passive sentences. As a general rule, you should not have more than one passive sentence per paragraph.

Getting rid of this bad habit is easy once you realize you have it. Just replace these verbs with something more descriptive. Example:

He was over there.

Change this to:

He stood over there.

A very simple change but look at how much more description you have in the action.

Example:

They were happy.

Change this to:

They looked happy.

They appeared happy.

They felt happy.

Again, this is a simple change but it added much more description and it became a much stronger sentence.

What is worse than too many passive sentences? Answer: Using passive verb gerund combinations when one verb will work. Trust me, you do this.

Example:

He was standing by the wall.

He was beginning to walk across the room.

He was starting to think.

We were talking to him.

Change to:

He stood by the wall

He began to walk across the room.

He started to think.

We talked to him.

Look at how much tighter and stronger those sentences became once you eliminated the passive voice.

Let’s all make a vow to rid this world from the overuse of passive sentences and make it a better place for all.

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