On Writing: Make Your Words DO More

DoMore - Active Voice Comic
Tuesday’s Creative Writing class struck me with an epiphany like a lightning bolt.  I guess I feel it should not have been such an epiphany, because I have heard the phrases “Passive Voice” and “Active Voice” before now.  I just never paid much attention.

In fact, I credit Microsoft Word for the majority of my previous knowledge on the subject.  Back in the day, it used to draw squiggles under sentences using the “Passive Voice.”  (As an aside, I cannot for the life of me make it work with Word 2010, even with all the options turned on.  Word ignored all my attempts.  Word!  Have you forgotten what a passive sentence is??)  Back when marking passive voice DID work in Word, these squiggles would always elicit a response from me similar to: “WTF does that mean??”

I did a small amount of research on the subject, just to figure out what the squiggles meant, but I soon grew bored with these endeavors.  I mean, no one throughout all of my years of schooling had ever mentioned this to me.  How important could this be?

As it turns out – very important!

Our second creative writing class turned out to be one of the most important lessons of both my learning and writing career.  My professor, Mr. Jas Obrecht, who I mentioned in my last post, taught us a great deal about the passive voice and its more preferable alternative the active voice.  So I wanted to share some of that awesomeness here.

I have to credit Jas with all of the new-found information listed here.  I am sure it appears in other places, but he was my source.  :)

Passive Voice

The passive voice results from using passive verbs in a sentence.

The passive verbs:

  • is
  • are
  • was
  • were
  • be
  • being
  • been
  • am

Sometimes passive verbs appear alone, and sometimes they modify another verb.

Examples:

  • A lone Passive Verb: He was alone.
  • A modifying Passive Verb: He was thinking about her.

In a passive sentence:

  • Nothing happens.
  • A fact is stated.
  • The subject is acted upon instead of acting.

Examples:

  • The dancer is crossing the stage.
  • She is beautiful.
  • They were told to do their homework.

Active Voice

The active voice brings life into a sentence by creating more action.

1. Active Verbs are more concise, direct, and vigorous.

Example:

  • Passive: A surge of power was responsible for the destruction of my hard drive, which was new.  (16 words)
  • Passive but more concise: My new hard drive was destroyed by a surge of power.  (11 words)
  • Active: A surge of power destroyed my new hard drive.  (9 words)
  • Active: A power surge fried my new hard drive.  (8 words)

2. The Active Voice can sometimes be used to cut unnecessary words and sentences.

Example:

  • Passive: There were squirrels outside my window.  They were chittering and arguing.  (11 words)
  • Active: The chittering squirrels argued outside my window.  (7 words)

3. Some Active Verbs are more powerful than others.

Example:

  • Good: The batter hit the ball really hard for a homerun.
  • Better: The batter blasted the ball out of the park for a homerun.

Other possible verbs: smacked, crushed, belted, careened, pummeled, plastered, etc.

4. Active Verbs can strengthen images and provide more detail.

Example:

  • Passive: The dancer was beautiful.  She was dancing.  She was crossing the stage.  (12 words)
  • Active: The beautiful dancer twirled across the stage.  (7 words)

Other possible verbs: pirouetted, waltzed, sambaed, spun, whirled, gyrated, glided, stomped, bounced, undulated, stumbled, tripped, cakewalked, etc.

Now what?

How about putting this knowledge to use?  All of the following sentences are written in the passive voice.  How can they be made more active?

Hint: First identify the main subject and the action taking place.

  • Passive Example: All questions are answered by my teacher at the end of the lecture.
  • Main subject: My teacher
  • Action: answer questions
  • Active Rewrite: My teacher answers all questions at the end of the lecture.

Now, for some passive voice examples.

  1. The steamy jungle is the prowling grounds of predators like the panther.
  2. A negative comment was posted on my blog by an anonymous person.
  3. Fred was frightened by the scary movie.
  4. It was not long before Ryan came across a fallen tree blocking the path forward.
  5. The whole dock was washed away by the storm.
  6. Every night the floor is swept and vacuumed by the cleaning company.
  7. Two dozen cookies were made by my mother for the bake sale.
  8. That video was posted yesterday to Twitter by my friend.
  9. The house was painted by Rita over the course of one afternoon.
  10. That entire stretch of highway was just paved last year by MDOT.

What else can I do with this new-found information?

Edit, edit, edit!

Put this knowledge to use in your own work!  Make your writing better!  Make your characters DO more!

You will not be able to cut ALL Passive Verbs from your writing, but I would guess about 90% of them.  Sometimes you just have to state a fact, and that is something Passive Verbs are good for.  But take a closer look at some of your recent writing.  Are there sentences you can make more powerful by changing a few words?  Maybe you can reorganize some sentences?  Good, long descriptive sentences line much of my writing, but I feel short, concise sentences peppered among them make the longer sentences stand up better.

Personally, I am rewriting the short story I took to class with me Tuesday.  I read “Tiny Dreamer” aloud to the rest of my class.  Since this immediately followed our passive voice talk, the words “was” and “were” assaulted my eyes and ears until I just wanted to stop reading and immediately start editing.  While we discussed my story, I whipped out a highlighter and marked all the passive verbs…

Tiny Dreamer - Page 1 w/ highlights

Tiny Dreamer – Page 1 w/ highlights

Tiny Dreamer - Page 2 w/ highlights

Tiny Dreamer – Page 2 w/ highlights

This is a lot of passive voice.  I can do better.

I hope to post the updated version of “Tiny Dreamer” soon.  For now, I wanted to post about my excitement over this Active Voice thing!  I think paying attention to this will make a positive difference in my writing.  Honestly, I am surprised I did not come home and start rewriting all of my short stories.  I will try and not go that far overboard, but I suppose it depends on how much of a difference it makes with this first one, eh?

I hope you all enjoy the information!

On a related note, I tweeted this the other night, but did not post about it yet:

DoMore - CW Tweet 1DoMore - CW Tweet 2DoMore - CW Tweet 3So.  Tickled.  :D

~ Effy

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4 thoughts on “On Writing: Make Your Words DO More

    • Thanks, Matty! Yah, this will definitely be a struggle. I tend to write much like I talk. Who knows, maybe this will improve my verbal communication skills too. lol

      ~ Effy

      Reply

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