Sketchy Writing Advice: how to change passive voice into active voice

Disclaimer: the following writing advice is base on the author’s personal experience of writing and does not represent any hard or fast rules. Your mileage may vary.

The plight of the passive voice writer.

You just got back from your writer’s group meeting. Or you just got feedback from your critique partner. They pointed out some passages in your piece that were weak. They described those passages as ‘passive’ and said that you needed to change them to ‘active voice.’ There was something in there about adverbs and ‘bewasbeeniswereamandare,’ but they said it too fast for you to understand. They might have told you to use the find function in Word to search for all the ‘being verbs’ and change them to active verbs. You nodded and said, “Sure, okay.”

But inside you were thinking, how?

Certainly, you may already know about being verbs and adverbs. Maybe you’ve heard about this enough already. If you have, you can skip down to the advice.

But in case you haven’t heard of being verbs, adverbs and action verbs, here’s a quick breakdown:

Being verbs: A ThoughtCo.com article states that “a verb that does not show action instead indicates a state of being. …[I]n English most being verbs are forms of to be (am, are, is, was, were, will be, being, been, etc.).”

Adverbs: Any word that ends in -ly (quickly, oily, chilly, moodily, etc.).

Action verbs: Any verb not one of the two above (run, slam, kiss, hold, breathe, help, etc.).

What’s the big deal?

Why does it matter if you write in passive voice? While passive voice has its place in prose, most of the time, you will hold a reader’s attention better with active voice. Some examples:

Passive voice: He was walking quickly along the dark alley. His skin was chilly from the cold.

Active voice: He hurried down the dark alley. Cold air chilled his skin.

Note the differences. The first example checks a few boxes – describes what the character does, shows that he feels cold. (Critiquers who know their stuff always tell you to show, show, SHOW! They’re not wrong.) Passive voice just doesn’t bring you into the story; it brings you to the story. Here it is. This is what happened.

The second example entices the reader. He didn’t just walk quickly, he hurried. You can see in your mind’s eye what that looks like, what it means. Something happened. The cold didn’t just make his skin chilly, it chilled. You know how that feels. Active voice doesn’t just bring you to the story; it dunks your head beneath the icy waters of the story. You’re here. You’re in it.

A quick note.

Writing your rough draft in passive voice is not the shameful act some feedback would have you think. Using being verbs and -ly adverbs helps you get your thoughts down on the page. Those first thoughts act as a road map to tell later you, editor you, what you meant by this. Just make sure you edit out your passive voice before you take new pieces to your next writing group meeting.

What I did.

In the above example of passive voice, I found the being verbs (was in both instances) and the adverbs (quickly and chilly). For the first sentence, I looked at quickly and let it tell me what it wanted to show. A number of active verbs would have worked here (stormed, rushed, thundered, raced, even ran or trotted), but I picked hurried because that’s what walking quickly makes me think about. Your choices depend on your context, what’s happening around your action (is he angry, frightened, speeding, or just a little late?).

For the second sentence in the passive voice example, I let the adverb become the action verb. Adverbs often stem from verbs, such as how chilly can come from to chill. (Quickly would not have changed the sentence to ‘he quickened down the dark alley,’ but it could have become ‘he quickened his pace down the dark alley.’ I would still have cut this last option down to ‘he hurried.’) So instead of ‘his skin was chilly from the cold’, chilly changes to chilled and becomes active in ‘the cold chilled his skin.’

Takeaways.

  1. Passive voice includes any ‘being verbs’ (be, was, been, is, were, am, are) and –ly adverbs
  2. Active verbs are any other verbs besides being verbs and adverbs
  3. Active voice trumps passive voice in most cases because it invites the reader into the story
  4. Active verbs replace [being verb] + [-ly adverb]
  5. Adverbs can be used as an indicator of the active verbs you need and converted into them
  6. Passive voice has its place, but not very often

How I learned this skill.

I, too, got feedback on my writing that told me to change from passive voice to active voice. Mind you, this advice came from my high school English class where I had begun to learn how to write essays and research papers. So the explanation was this: “Do a word search in your document for being verbs and adverbs, then delete them.”

Well. They must have meant to say ‘replace them.’ I did follow this advice. But once I found a being verb, I had to figure out what to do with it. That’s when I learned to replace them with active verbs (since I had nothing else to use). You can sure do this to help you activate your prose and I encourage you to do so as you get started. But using this ‘find + replace’ method takes forever. I suggest learning to write in the active voice in the first place. Makes your life much easier.

I made it a point to practice this method of avoiding being verbs and -ly adverbs. I told myself I could use neither unless absolutely necessary, and even then, I would exhaust all my alternatives first. Not until I had written my way through a huge chunk of my flash fiction series, The Hopeful Wanderer, did I begin to feel that I had a firm understanding of when I could use passive voice.

So I say to you, learn to write with active voice until you know it by muscle memory, then let yourself play around.

Got any questions about converting passive voice into active voice? Let me know in the comments below. If you have any stories about how YOU learned to write in active voice, I want to hear them!


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Writing with Anxiety: Be Afraid and Write It Anyway

Word Nerd Scribbles Turns 100 Posts Old

We hit the 100 posts mile marker last week with the review for All Systems Red. Such a momentous occasion deserves something special, so today’s 101st post will mark the beginning of the addition of semi-regular Tuesday posts, complementing flash fiction publications on Thursdays and book reviews on Saturdays.

While in search of ideas for a spiffy 101st post topic, I ran across The Writeous Babe’s article 100 Blog Post Ideas and My 100th Post, stuffed full of excellent suggestions. If you writers ever run dry on post ideas, I suggest wandering over there. Two of the suggestions that intrigued me were “Write the story of how and why you got started blogging” and “Post an inspirational quote and what it means to you.”

We will, in a way, cover both as we explore my personal methods for dealing with anxiety as a writer.

Be Afraid and Do It Anyway

As a young person harboring both anxiety and ambition, I had to adopt the mantra of be afraid and do it anyway just to accomplish anything, including my goal of becoming a writer. The phrase echos Susan Jeffers’s book entitled Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, which may be where I got the idea. I’ve never read her book, but the basic premise of my attitude runs thusly: accept that you are afraid–impossibly afraid, too afraid to ever make the move, submit to the contest, post the article online–and then make it, submit it, post it, even if you do so blind with panic. Being afraid and doing it anyway landed me my first job, got me into (and, when necessary, out of) relationships, and convinced me to start showing readers my written work.

(Disclaimer: I’m fully aware that anxiety is a difficult disorder to deal with, especially when it involves actual panic attacks. When applying this principle, your mileage may vary.)

Anxiety in writing often derives not from a fear of writing itself. We like writing; it’s fun and brings us satisfaction. Lots of writers write just for themselves or trustworthy friends and while this may involve its own sense of anxiety, I myself haven’t experienced such in my own experiments with personal journaling.

In truth, we writers fear audience judgement–how our work will be received by friends and strangers, whether it will be “good enough.” By good enough, I mean entertaining. We hope so much for those likes and kudos and gushing comments, which follow effective entertainment, and fear the lack of them. Yes, yes, we’ve read those remonstrations that writers must develop a thick skin (all true), but anxiety cranks that fear up to eleven. If you write with anxiety, you may never develop that thick skin. May never feel ready to share your work with an audience.

Do it anyway.

Methods for Writing Anyway

Every anxious writer starts somewhere. While my experience may differ from yours, below are my suggestions to get you started writing in spite of anxiety, based on what helped (and helps) me write while afraid.

Because I write fiction, my suggestions live within the realm of crafting story more than in the various aspects of creating non-fiction. Be afraid and do it anyway still applies to all types of writing, as well as to living life in general.

  • Show it to a very trusted friend

Make sure you’re presenting your work to an audience that will be receptive to what you write. So don’t show it to just any friend. If you hand off your piece to your friend who doesn’t read much, you’ll probably get that “it’s nice” response that no artist wants. You stand a better chance of getting useful feedback/a desired response from friends who read, especially if they like the genre you write (i.e. if you write mysteries, hand it to your friend who likes solving puzzles and/or reading mysteries). Matchy-matchy.

I started this (and discovered who my First Reader would become) by offering to write fiction about characters my friends were playing in a tabletop game. People love reading your words about something they made, so you could even offer to write about the original characters your writing friends have created. Just ensure that you do those characters justice.

  • Write (and post) fanfiction

Writing fanfiction has a freeing effect on the anxious writer. Since the characters, backstories, settings, and plots have already been established, have already drawn in what might be a huge audience depending on the franchise’s popularity, you as a writer can capitalize on the readership of fans who like the same thing that you do. They’re hungry for more content and you want to improve your craft, so churn out coffee shop AUs and original plots and everything in between to hone your skills, drawing in enthusiastic readers who expect to be forgiving of amateur work.

I wrote and posted four Fallout 4 fanfictions before I got serious about creating original work. It’s gratifying to watch that views counter rise (in active fandoms) and even receive a kudo or a comment. More importantly, comparing the progression of your works shows you how much your writing has improved with practice. You can take the lessons learned in writing fanfiction and apply them to crafting your own original fiction.

I suggest Archive of Our Own as my favorite fanfiction forum, with Fanfiction.net as a close second. AO3 is much easier to navigate and post stories, but requires a request to join, while FF.net lets you get started immediately, even if the document uploader can be tricky to use. No reason why you can’t sign up for both for more wider audience variety.

  • Put it on your blog

Got a Tumblr? WordPress? Blogger? Reddit? Even if you don’t, it’s not hard to get set up on these websites and start posting your content, be it fanfiction or original work, short-stories or novel snippets. All of this for free with no gatekeepers to turn you away. Consider making your own little writing domain on a more open website like WordPress or Blogger and then crossposting your work to forums you must join like Tumblr. All of these boast an anonymous function if keeping your own name off your work will help you be braver about posting publicly. Liberal use of tags helps readers find you.

Keep in mind that what you post on the internet, most magazines, quarterlies, journals, and contest websites will consider published. It’s great to post original fiction on your blog, but make sure it’s work you’re willing to give away for free. Hold back any pieces you hope to submit or sell.

Word Nerd Scribbles (a blog I had created but rarely used) became a great place to post my profile pieces written about friends and family for a Facebook social project. You can read about how that went here.

  • Write it for you

In the end, the audience member who matters the most is you. Whether you write just for yourself or you want to garner as many appreciative readers as possible, you are the one who has to like what you write. Don’t be too hard on yourself, accept your own criticisms with a grain of salt, and remember to forgive yourself as much as you would forgive another writer.

In On Writing, Stephen King says, “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.” Meaning to help alleviate that anxiety, forget about audience altogether. They don’t matter until you get to the revision stage; your writing is for you.

Do you as an anxious writer have any tricks for powering through that fear and writing anyway? If you’re willing to share, I’d love to hear about them in the comments. Happy 101st Post!


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