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DON’T OVERDO PASSIVE

February 20, 2013

             I just read a great book that I almost put down after the first page. Really a half page, with the chapter number in the middle, follows the pattern of many books. I’m emphasizing this to put things in perspective.

            The story started so passive, I couldn’t help but count the was’s. There were two paragraphs. The first short three-sentence paragraph was clean. The second one had eight, that’s 8 was’s in it. It was downhill from there. The same pattern continued for seven pages before the book finally took off. If it wasn’t for the reputation (and subsequent movie that just came out) from this author, I wouldn’t have continued. At least it was written in third-person, past tense.

            It’s a good thing I decided to keep going because it turned out to be a great read. However, I could just as easily have tossed it because of those first seven pages. Anyone heard of those first-page read contests?

            This never would’ve made first pass at a writer’s group, let alone any editor worth their salt. Of course, this author has a rep and lots of power, so he could write the phone book and his editor will be saying “Yes Sir!” We, as unknowns, and low-down-the-totem-pole authors would be ostracized, criticized and sent back to writing school. To be blunt, the writing sucked, at least at first. It could’ve been so much better and I think the author did his audience a great disservice. However, what do I know? He’s got the millions and I don’t.

            There’s nothing wrong with a little passivity in your writing. It’s part of our language. However, there’s a time and place for it and should be sprinkled throughout the story, not slammed into every sentence and paragraph. Active is almost always better than passive and makes your writing so much stronger. Examples:

            “Jodi had been a great friend but she stabbed Mark in the back.”

            You should do a word search through your manuscript and get rid of every had been in your narrative, except in dialogue, and they should be used sparingly!

            “Once a great friend, Jodi stabbed Mark in the back.”

            This revised sentence is much more active.

            How about this old standby:

            “It was a dark and stormy night.”

            How would you fix that and make it more active?

            “The dark and stormy night raged outside the window.”

            That is one of many ways to fix the sentence.

            “It should’ve been the best way to take care of what was once a grand scheme.”

            Hmmm.

            “The solution they came up with didn’t take care of the once grand scheme.”

            You can’t get rid of every passive word. That would make your prose too flat and dry. However, you should cut them down drastically.

            You can use passive words in dialogue if you don’t overdo it.

            Leave a few sprinkled throughout your prose, especially a was here and there.

            Words and word combinations to get rid of.

            was

            had

            Anything connected with been

            should’ve been

            has been

            had been

            had’ve been

            would’ve been

            as

            There are probably more I’m not thinking of right now, but those are a good start.

            What you do when you find one in a sentence is rethink the sentence. Try to reword it so that the sentence says the same thing but it doesn’t have to use those words and it is active, in other words, it moves forward instead of backward (or stands still). All of these passive words move backward or nowhere. They are not active. Active words move forward, move somewhere.

            I’m not immune to passive either. I read an excerpt from Meleena’s Adventures – Gods Of The Blue Mountains last night at the Henderson Writer’s Group and our el-presidente, who is also an editor, caught me on several passive sentences. Forest through the trees!

            Until next time…

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 20, 2013 3:13 am

    Thanks for the lesson, Fred, I needed that.

    Felix

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