On Revision: Eliminating Passive Verbs

I like to revise. I really like it. I love to help people revise too. I am also for hire should you want me to help you out. If you don’t want to pay me (why not?), there are lots of little things YOU can do to make your own WIP stronger.

First, you can check out a few blog posts that I’ve published that are really helpful:

Reblog Wednesday: The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam - This is great for speculative fiction writers to work on making sure their content isn’t rife with cliche.

Revision and Critique Group Tips – This is pretty self-explanatory! :)

An Exercise in Detail – This is great for practicing slowing down your writing to gather details.

Wordle and Poetry – This is a post about writing exercises and ideas to help you develop your writing.

One of my obsessions thanks to a grammar class in college is passive verbs. Passive verbs slow down your writing and steal the heat away from your prose. However, passive verbs, if you’re not familiar with them, hide from you and eliminating them can be difficult.

So first, pick a color of pen or highlighter and go through and circle/highlight every instance of: are, is, was, were, had, have, will, could, would. I also think looked, turned, watched, started, heard, gave, hoped, smelled, and thought should be eliminated as much as possible. They’re overused, blah words. Also, if you work to eliminate them, your work will be stronger.

Now, you have a wall of red… what next? Figure out how you can eliminate them. Here are some examples of ways I’ve eliminated some:

“he started to reel his line in” changes to “he reeled his line in” – simple enough

“there were apprentices running in between delivery carts” changes to “apprentices ran between delivery carts” – again, still simple because a great action verb stands ready

When you use passive verbs in situations like, “It was cold.” Cold is an adjective. So, either use it that way or use a metaphor… “it froze his fingers” or “it froze.” Or from “the car was red” to simply “the red car.” This is not to say, just add adjectives, because adjectives are lazy ways to add description, but once in a while, it’s okay. Be careful doing it. Sometimes, you have to rearrange the whole sentence or paragraph to eliminate your passive verb so don’t be afraid to look past the period for help.

For rearranging, try something like “Alice was used to Xui’s primping so she waited…” to “Alice, used to Xui’s primping, waited…”

Try this active verb exercise from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Make a list of ten nouns. Pick a profession and find 15 verbs associated with that profession. Now match them up and make some sentences. She has sentences like “Dinosaurs marinate in the earth.” “The fiddles boiled the air with their music.”

Use -ing/-ed verb phrases to add detail (Running through the store, Mary slipped and fell.)

Use metaphor effectively (that takes practice) and not fall back on cliches or simile. “She laughed like a hyena” is both cliche and a simile. Using a metaphor effectively means using those verbs to do more than be literal: The buildings of the colony drew a jagged line across the sky. The buildings didn’t really draw anything, but that’s better than “The buildings were all different sizes.” And thoughtful practice: knowingly work on your passive verbs. The more you do, the easier it is.

I’ve found some really great sites about how to work on your passive verbs, so please check them out and please give me YOUR tips if you have any!

Let’s Have Fun Writing | Spike Those Verbs

Active and Passive Verbs

Passive and Active Voice

Active and Passive Voice

5 thoughts on “On Revision: Eliminating Passive Verbs

  1. AK

    I’ll have to check Scrivener, but Word has a “find” and “highlight” function that does this same trick on the electronic copy. Great Tips!

    Reply
    1. melanie_unabridged Post author

      I like the paper copy for visualization. I revise me scenes in Word. Love Scrivener but Word had better display for word processing. Scrivener offers a free trial. Check it out because it makes navigating your novel so so much easier.

      Reply
      1. AK

        I did check out the free trial. Totally buying it. After the editing process and rewrite process, Scrivener looks like the way to go.

  2. Ken

    Scrivener is amazing once you get to know all it can do.

    Re: passive verbs, I think the rule about avoiding them can be taken to extremes. Sometimes, it’s best to just keep them, especially in literary fiction. To quote a famous example, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief…”

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s