Eliminating Passive Writing
by Laura Backes,
Write4Kids.com—The Children's Writing SuperSite
Passive Writing is a common pitfall, one so insidious that it
even pops up in the writing of very experienced authors from time to time. It
can sap the life and energy out of the most exciting story.
I've read entire manuscripts written in passive sentences,
which make the story sound like it's about to start, but never takes off.
Passive writing tells rather than shows; the author circles the story without
ever letting the reader become involved in the action. Here's an example:
In the field was a mouse. He was sitting in the tall grass.
There was a cat across the road. The cat smelled the mouse, and began to walk
to the field. There was a noise in the grass. The cat and mouse looked at each
Each sentence falls like a lead weight on the page.
Sentences that start with forms of there was, there is, and
there are (or he/she was, he/she is, etc.) are telling and almost always
passive. Search for these constructions in your writing and eliminate them.
"Began to" can also be passive.
When writing actively, verbs are your most valuable tool.
Pick verbs that describe exactly how your character is acting; alternate words
for "sat" carry different emotional meanings (perched, slouched, squat ). The
subject and verb contain the important information in each sentence, so keep
those elements close together and toward the front of the sentence to achieve
the greatest impact.
Another problem with the above example is that there is no
main character. The viewpoint of both the cat and mouse are shown. In one
sentence—There was a noise in the grass—you're
not sure who is hearing the sound. If you write the story from one point of
view it forces you to see the events through your main character's eyes, thus
leading to active writing.
Here is the cat-and-mouse scenario with the passive writing
eliminated, using specific, descriptive verbs, and adding a bit of dialogue:
The mouse lolled in the field, nibbling on a seed. He sighed
as the soft rustling of the grass caressed his ears. Suddenly, he leapt to his
feet as a rumbling purrr floated through the breeze. The mouse stared straight
into two yellow eyes and a wide, cat grin. "Egads!" he shrieked.
The reader will assume that the cat smelled the mouse and
stalked his prey across the field. By eliminating passive writing, the mouse
is poised for action, and the story is off and running.
It takes time and practice to eliminate such problems as
expository dialogue and passive writing from your work. But the payoff for
your hard work and diligence will be a smoother style and a heightened ability
to create remarkable stories.
About the Author:
Laura Backes is the publisher of Children's Book Insider, the Newsletter for
Children's Writers, and co-founder of the
Children's Authors Bootcamp seminars. For more information about writing children's
books, including free articles, market tips, insider secrets and much more,
visit Children's Book Insider's home on the Web at
Copyright 2001, Children's Book