Active vs. Passive Writing

by Jeanne Marie Leach

One of the main problems with active vs. passive and showing vs. telling is that they can often cross over one another. Something that is passive can also be considered telling. Active can also be showing. But we won’t concern ourselves with that today. It’s best to simply understand them in their basic forms. Here, we’ll discuss active vs. passive.

Active vs. passive

These sound exactly like what they mean. Passive writing is undesirable for obvious reasons. We want fiction to be active, exciting, and constantly moving the story forward. There are a couple simple telltale signs to help you spot passive writing.

The verb “was” is the main culprit that renders a sentence passive. Consider the following examples:

• Jane was angry at her brother for telling her parents she was the one who’d caused the stain on the carpet.

• There wasn’t enough time to think before she ran after John.

• The car was so shiny.

• Bart was about to run after her when she turned around and looked him in the eyes.

For the most part, there’s nothing wrong with these sentences, but passive writing is considered lazy writing. In the first sentence, you know the basics, but exactly how angry had Jane become? We don’t know; the author doesn’t tell us. To change passive writing into active, the author will need to rewrite the sentence, and it often means expanding the sentence into two or three. You could leave the sentence as it is, but it’s better to make it come alive. You can get inside Jane’s head and really know what she’s thinking. This is much the same idea being taught these days called Deep POV.

Here are the same sentences, only written to be more active instead of passive:

• Jane frowned and stomped her foot. “You little brat! You had no right to tell Mom and Dad I spilled my juice on the rug. I’m going to ring your stupid, little neck when I catch you.”

• John left and she leaned against the door. A moment later, he heard a car door close. How could she let him go like this? She ran outside and down the sidewalk. “John, I’m sorry! Please, don’t go!”

• He saw his reflection in the new, candied apple red paint job, and the depth of the shine let him believe there had to be at least eight coats of paint on the car.

• Bart’s heart couldn’t let her simply walk away like this. He wanted to go after her, but he couldn’t make himself take that first step. She turned and looked him in the eyes, and at that moment he knew they would be together forever.

Do you see the difference between the first set of sentences and the second? Passive writing tells the basics, but by getting rid of “was,” the author is forced to let the reader know the depth of what is happening.

Now don’t go off on a “was” hunt and eliminate all of them. There are times when this is the only word that would work in a particular sentence. Ask yourself if the sentence leaves any unanswered questions, and that should help you determine if it is passive.

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Jeanne Marie Leach is a multi-published author, freelance editor, speaker, and writing coach. The 46th member to join the ACFW, she judges the Genesis Contest and the Carol Awards and is the moderator of the Novel Track group. Jeanne teaches six months of classes on editing fiction through the Christian PEN: Proofreaders and Editor’s Network. She loves mentoring and coaching beginning writers, and in the past seven years, she has helped six people who have gone on to win Christian writing awards. Visit Jeanne’s website: www.jeannemarieleach.com

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