I see it all the time. A teen or new writer has talent. Real talent for story telling. Story structure comes naturally to them, and if they’re voracious readers, then that’s not a surprise. But the biggest problem I see in these talented writers is that they write in the passive voice. Passive writing can be good story telling, but active draws your reader into the story world and takes them on that emotional roller coaster ride they’re looking for.
Stephen King agrees that passive writing can kill. Okay, not sure he actually said kill, but it seems to fit. Basically, what he says in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, is that passive writing and adverbs are two of the hallmarks of poor writing.
Okay, so we established passive writing is bad. So what is it exactly? For me, the difference between passive and active writing is the difference between reading a story and experiencing it. Technically, the difference is passive writing uses passive verbs and active writing uses strong verbs. Let’s take a closer look as the example in the cartoon above.
What makes this cartoon funny is that it’s actually written in the passive voice. How can I tell? Take a look at the verb. Was written is passive because it uses a helping verb was.
Now let’s take a look at the next sentence.
The boy wrote in the passive voice.
Did you notice the verb? It’s active. It doesn’t have a helping verb which is passive. But what else is different about the two sentences? Okay, get ready for a little grammar lesson.
Active Voice: shows the subject doing the action of the verb
Passive Voice: shows the subject receiving the action
So if you show the subject doing something you have active writing. Simple, right? But there’s another step to active writing.
It’s not enough to have the subject doing the action, but the word you choose to describe that noun and action (verb) should be the best possible descriptive word for the sentence. If you have to use an adjective or adverb, take another look at the noun and verb. Can you make it stronger? Is there another word that could describe the action better? Here are a few examples:
Passive: It was raining outside
Active: The rain beat down on my window.
Passive: I felt like I was going to die.
Active: My insides ached so much my heart almost gave out.
Passive: I was going to the store.
Active: I ran to the store.
Passive: I was excited when I made the cheerleading squad.
Active: I jumped up and down when I made the cheerleading squad.
Passive: I felt sad
Active: Tears rolled down my cheeks
Can you see the difference?
Below is a list of passive words to look for (use the search and find feature in your document to find the passive words) in your story.
Is, was, be, are, been, felt, watch, saw, (any emotion like sad, happy, etc.) and ING words next to LY words (adverbs). Also do a search for the 5 senses words (taste, touch, feel, heard, saw) and you’ll probably find passive writing.
So what are you waiting for? Go make your writing leap off the page.
They say those who can’t, teach. I say those who have a passion, inspire others to greatness. That’s why I teach. Sure, I have several fiction and nonfiction published books out, not to mention hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles. However, my passion is to inspire release the writer in you and take your writing to the next level.
I host a weekly podcast called Teen Writers Publish on writing for teens and adults. I’ve homeschooled my four children, taught in private and public schools, and mentored writers for years on Writer…Interrupted. I also teach and tutor elementary, middle school, and high school students in creative writing and composition as well as offering private classes and for adults. So even though I can and do write, I also teach. Because nothing is more satisfying than helping someone find their voice and write their story!