Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Writing Tip Wednesday--Active vs. Passive

One of the most common misconceptions is what constitutes passive writing. I've seen numerous sources telling writers to never use "was" with an -ing word because it's passive. While "to be" verbs are clues that the sentence might be passive, using an -ing word with it is active.

Here are some examples of active writing:

1) I wrote one chapter today.
2) I was finishing the third chapter when the phone rang.
3) I am letting my characters tell the story.

Notice the sentence structure. In each example, the subject and verb are followed by a direct object. I did, was doing, or am doing some action to something. The subject is doing the action.

Here are some examples of passive writing:

4) Chapter two was critiqued by an editor.
5) I was bitten on the leg.
6) They were attacked in the woods.

The subject is the recipient of the action in these sentences rather than the one doing the action. I saw a great hint on Twitter a few weeks ago on how to recognize passive sentences. If you can add "by zombies" at the end, the sentence is passive. Examples 4-6 can be rewritten to become active.

4) (active) An editor critiqued chapter two.
5) (active) A zombie bit me on the leg.
6) (active) The zombies attacked them in the woods.

Am I saying you should always write in active format? No. In some cases, passive is acceptable and helps vary sentence structure. However--active writing keeps the reader engaged with the characters. Use passive writing sparingly and purposefully.

If you haven't gotten your hands on a copy of a style book, go buy one now for even more information on active vs. passive! Chicago Manual is a great resource for this topic!

Next week--Show vs. Tell

Mellanie Szereto
Romance...With A Kick!


  1. Gotta write down that "by zombies" thing. Simple, and funny!

  2. Thanks for stopping by, JeanneM! More to come!

  3. I love the "zombies" tip. I'm going to definitely use this!

  4. I love that reminder trick too, Jeana :)