Posts Tagged ‘passive verbs’

December 8, 2014

Twelve Common Mistakes Found in Fiction Manuscripts

Mistake Number Ten: Passive Verbs Instead of Active Verbs


This is the tenth blog discussing some common mistakes found in fiction manuscripts from early readers and chapter books to adult novels of various subgenres. Several weeks ago, we started this list and will continue until we’ve done all of what I believe are the most important common mistakes. Today we’ll look at “Passive Verbs Instead of Active Verbs,” a fiction mistake so common, even the most skilled and seasoned writers can fall into the passive voice or “being verb” trap.

Too much description and narration

Switching viewpoints in the same scene

A negative tone throughout the story

Infallible or underdeveloped characters

Stilted or unnatural dialogue

No significant conflict

Weak transitions between paragraphs

Impossible resolutions


Passive verbs instead of active verbs

Lack of sensory detail

Lack of emotion or action

Baker’s Dozen: (Telling instead of showing)

Am, are, is, was, were, be, been, will be, shall be…the most common list of passive verbs that are so easy to use, and abuse,  and make your manuscript move in slow motion. Passive verbs in the passive voice can sneak into any manuscript, which according to my laptop’s dictionary “indicate that the apparent subject of a verb is the person or thing undergoing, not performing, the action of the verb.”  In other words, the subject of the sentence is not doing the action. He/she, therefore, is, well, passive!  But a writer who is honing his craft will want to focus on action, action, action, and have that subject perform the action, not receive it.

Now let’s look at passive verbs in some sample sentences and then change them into active verbs, helping the sentence to come alive:

Example One

Passive Voice: On Christmas Day, Sally was given a diamond ring by her fiancé Jeff.

Active Voice: On Christmas Day, Sally received a diamond ring from her fiancé Jeff. OR

(Change the subject) On Christmas Day, Jeff gave his fiancé, Sally, a diamond ring.

Example Two –

Passive: Twice a day, Frisky the poodle is walked by his owner Sam.

Active:  Twice a day, Sam walks his poodle Frisky.  OR

Twice a day, Frisky the poodle walks with his owner Sam.

Example Three –

Passive: Marcy thought she was given too much work to do by her mother.

Active:  Marcy thought her mother gave her too much work. OR

Marcy thought she worked too hard for her mother.

See how easy you can change a slow-moving sentence (and manuscript) into a story that “flows?”

Now, let’s discuss the flagrant misuse of passive verbs when they’re NOT in the passive voice. I would say this misuse is extremely prevalent in all manuscripts when writers are not careful, including experienced ones as well as beginners.

Passive verbs when not in passive voice are “legal” and are labeled as the progressive form/indicative mood (in past, present, and future tenses and in past perfect, present perfect, and future perfect tenses.)  We need not bore you with any other details and conjugation of any verbs, which might not help you a lick. (But if you’re interested, take a peek at this website: http://www.verbix.com/webverbix/English/learn.html ) The problem with these verbs is they slow down the action and can put your readers to sleep. There shouldn’t be more than one or two of these passive verbs per page in a well-written piece.

Let’s look at some samples of passive verb overkill and how the sentences can be changed to add more action and give the manuscript some oomph. Please take note that in the following sentences, the subjects are all doing the action in every sentence, but also notice which sentences have that oomph!

Example One –

Passive Verb: Fred will be taking his final exams next week.

Active Verb:  Fred will take his final exams next week.

Example Two

Passive Verb: The sun was shining brightly.

Active Verb:  The sun shone (or shined) brightly.

Example Three

Passive Verb:  The third grade students were looking forward to Christmas vacation.

Active Verb:   The third grade students looked forward to Christmas vacation.

Example Four

Passive Verb:  George will be going on a trip to France in February.

Active Verb:   George will go on a trip to France in February.

Then last but not least, let’s look at a few sentences that use “being verbs” and are just considered lazy or bad writing (and such an easy habit to form):

Example One

Being Verb:  Sam was the tallest boy in the class and won the jumping contest.

Better:          Sam, the tallest boy in the class, won the jumping contest.

Example Two

Being Verb:  I am not excited at all about going to the dentist.

Better:           I dread going to the dentist.

Example Three

Passive Verb:  Phil will be glad when this work day ends.

Better:             Phil can’t wait for this work day to end.

Example Four

Passive Verb:  Skiing down steep slopes is only for the young at heart and the foolish.

Better:  Only the young at heart and the foolish should ski down steep slopes.

Now, do yourself a favor and open the manuscript you’re working on. Do a word search and see how many times the nasty little passive (being) verbs pop up. Rephrase your sentences and try to limit these verbs to one or two a page. I think you’ll be amazed at how tight your writing will become and how much more appealing your story will be to your readers.

Next time we’ll take a look at Mistake Number Eleven: Lack of Sensory Detail

Happy writing!


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