Tag Archives: passive voice

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

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Revision and Critique Group Tips

So here’s a little list of what I’m doing to prep my first 20 pagers for my critique group. I’ve already given some off to others for a preliminary read but some of this is 100% independent revision. So here’s what I do:

1. Go to Wordle. I mentioned this a while back (becomingauthor.wordpress.com/2012/02/22/wordle-and-poetry) to use to keep track of what words you overuse. Scrivener does the same thing under Project > Text Statistics > Word Frequency but also picks up on words like “the” “was” “is.” Scriveners is more useful for revision but Wordle is 1) much prettier 2) free. So check it out. I’ve shared Wordles before, here’s a Wordle of my manuscript as of today:

It looks like I really need to edit out the word “back.” Sheesh. Anyway, like any word cloud, the biggest words are the most common… so yes, your main characters are going to be the most common! I don’t think you could edit that out nor would you want to.

2. I edit out passive voice. I love this little Twitter gem for that:

So: She was eaten. Add “by zombies” and it’s still makes sense: She was eaten by zombies. And typically passive voice is pretty simple to edit out: Zombies ate her. Much more powerful, more interesting, etc.

I also work on passive verbs: am, was, are, is. They’re not as easy to edit out, unfortunately, but work on it. Save your passive verbs for moments when you want the reader to slow down and pause in time. BUT mostly try to kick them out as much as possible.

3. Suck it up and admit when something in your scene is just fluff! “I like cats so the MC likes cats.” Okay, SO WHAT? Channel your inner teenager and pile on the sass as you ask your scenes, “SO WHAT?” If you can’t answer them, they might not be necessary. Further, “Because I like it,” isn’t good enough.

4. Adjectives, cut them out. You may be saying, “But those are what add detail,” and you’re partially right. HOWEVER, don’t rely on them as a crutch. If you think adding detail is making “The ball bounced.” into “The big, red, round ball bounced.” then your idea is wrong. Tough love right now, adding adjectives is NOT enough and it’s a juvenile (sorry) attempt at adding detail. There are a ton of ways to change out your adjectives! Practice it on your own and I’ll try to get a post out later this week on some ways to add detail without adding adjectives!

5. Cut out adverbs (most -ly words). The same reason fits for adverbs as does adjectives. Find other ways to say it and it’ll be stronger than “quickly.”

6. Read your draft aloud to yourself. Hearing it makes you slow down and actually read it AND you actually HEAR it. I can’t explain why, but it helps. Promise.

7. DO NOT WORRY ABOUT THIS STUFF IN YOUR FIRST DRAFT. If you spend your first draft worrying about any of this your draft won’t flow properly because you’ll be constantly worrying. These are strictly REVISION techniques NOT writing. Writing is about writing, not editing. So write, get it out, let your first draft be shit as Hemingway so lovingly put it: The first draft of everything is shit.

Though I am a huge fan of editing and revision, nothing and I repeat nothing is better than a good critique group. I can recommend to you all the little tips and tricks I use to get my work “polished” for others to read, but that will never, ever replace a good critique group. Keep in mind that you need to find a critique group with a variety of genres, styles, and personalities to get solid feedback from. The most important thing to a good critique group is honesty: if you worry too much about hurting each other’s feelings, than you’re not going to make any progress and neither is anyone in your group. Learn to be mean and learn to take it. Criticism isn’t bad, negativity is. Those are two different beasts and as soon as you and your critique group learn that, the better.