Purge the Passive Voice
Anyone who knows me as a writer knows how vigilantly I try to purge the passive voice from the manuscripts I write and edit. After all, I feel that if I put so much time and effort into writing or editing, I want the work to show action and sizzle with excitement. I want it to maintain good pace and hold the interest of my reader.
Granted, we need passive verbs to express certain concepts, such as state of being or location, but we don’t want to overuse them. An article or a book written in the passive voice will do little but act as a sleeping pill. And after all your hard work, you don’t want to put your readers to sleep.
Active verbs keep things moving. Readers prefer active voice, and as writers, we need to train ourselves to write in the active voice to appeal to our audiences.
However, even if we fully saturate our psyche with this philosophy, we’ll still use passive verbs, mainly because we tend to speak in the passive voice. But when we speak, we rely on body language, hand gestures, facial expressions, eye contact, inflection, and a host of other visual signals to make our points and hold our listener’s interest. With the written word, we have no such crutches. We only have the written work, so we must use the strongest words we can.
Okay, so you just have to write is. Write it. Don’t stress over it. You can always edit it out. But when we edit, we often read through the passive verbs as we revise and polish. Recently, I found a little tool that makes it nearly impossible to read through those pesky passive verbs, and I use the Find and Replace function in my word processing program. Let me share these simple directions with you. While I give these specifically for Microsoft Word, other word processing programs, such as WordPerfect, operate in much the same way.
∙ Click on Edit.
∙ Click on Replace.
∙ Click on More.
∙ Click on All.
∙ In the same menu, click on Match Case and Find Whole Words only.
∙ In the Find What: field, type in the word am.
∙ In the Replace with: field, type in the word am.
∙ Click on Format.
∙ Click on Highlight.(Make sure you have a color highlighted on your tool bar. I like to use yellow.)
∙ Click on Replace All.
This little operation will highlight in yellow the word am every time it appears in your manuscript, thus making it stand out and virtually impossible for you to read through. Repeat the operation for the following words: is, are, was, were, be, being, become, became, and been. Also add would to that list. Would indicates the conditional tense, a very weak tense to write in.
If you belong to what I call the “word of the month club,” that is, whether consciously or unconsciously you have a word that you like to use a lot, (Fess up, we all have one or two.) add that to the list. I figure since English boasts a vocabulary of over 800,000 words, we can easily pick another.
Then go back to your manuscript and look at each highlighted word. Seriously rethink that word and the sentence in which it appears. Ask yourself how you can rewrite it to make it more vibrant, more colorful, and more meaningful.
Let me share a few examples with you.
Example: The touching story was written by you.
Revision: You wrote the story that touched my heart.
Example: The houses were destroyed by the tornado.
Revision: The tornadoes destroyed the houses.
Example: The soldiers were marching through the town.
Revision: The soldiers marched through the town.
Think of this as good training for writing in the active voice. If you realize that in the editing process you’ll have to take out 90% of those passive verbs, you’ll only reluctantly write them in the first place. Eventually, it will become second nature to you. I know I cringe every time I use one and ask myself, “Can I say this in a better way?” You’ll find yourself doing the same.
For now, get started using this tool. You may find it a little awkward at first, much like the first time you held a hammer, but with use, you grew more adept. This will prove the same. Use it. Make it your own. Put it to work to help you add strength and power to your writing. Then sit back and let your editors brag about the great writer they found.
Joan R. Neubauer is the author of several books including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Journaling, her recent historical novel, A Serpent’s Tooth, and Shadow Dancing. She currently spends her time publishing books for new authors at WordWright.biz in Alpine, Texas and invites readers to contact her at JNwriter@aol.com. Joan always enjoys traveling to speak to writers to share information and encourage them.