May 11, 2007

Donna's Writing Book of Wisdom: Passive Voice

by Donna Hatch

I am often approached about critiquing people’s writing. Some of those requests are from established critique partners, some are from other writers in my various writing groups. I’ve been asked to critique short stories, anecdotes, novels and memoirs.

People seem to think that there are hard and fast rules to writing, but in order to developing that fresh, original voice editors crave can be difficult. Especially if one is getting bogged down in obeying all the rules!

If you focus instead on avoiding major blunders rather than staying within the lines, so to speak, it can help.

One of the big mistakes writers make is called Passive Voice. Some people advise new writers to watch out for using the weak verbs “to be.” Remember those from grade school? Am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being, etc?

I often hear mentors caution against using the verb “was” and it’s other “to be” verbs because they’re weak. That’s true. They are weak. Whimpy. Meant to be used very sparingly. They also signify passive voice.

Here are two examples:

“She was angry.” This could be more effective if changed to “She trembled in anger.”

“It rained very hard on them as they ran.” This could be “Rain pummeled them as they ran.”

Not only do these second examples use stronger verbs, they are more specific and paint a clearer visual picture.

Just to throw in another monkey wrench, using the words “feel” or “felt” waters down your narrative, too.

"I felt the dog shiver in my arms" is not as strong as "The dog shivered in my arms."

Here's another, "I felt sick" is weaker than "My stomach lurched."

And "I was happy" not only uses the dreaded WAS, but it’s also passive voice. "I felt happy" gets rid of the word was, but it doesn't get improve the passive voice.

Remember, show, don't tell. Try something like. "Unable to keep the smile off my face, I..." or "with a lighter heart and a spring in my step, I..." that way, you are showing that you’re happy and not just telling. See what I mean?"

So remember, to write in strong, active voice, try to avoid “to be” verbs, and “feel” or “felt,” and watch your writing come alive

Happy Writing!


Believe in Happy Endings…


  1. Purdue University's Online Writing Lab or Owl, has a great printable handout on active and passive voice. I'll attempt to make this a clickable link, but if it doesn't work, just highlight and paste the link into your browser.

  2. Whew! It worked. Click the link.

  3. Great posting on Passive voice. May I use it for a future ANWA handout? And thanks, Marsha, for the Owl link. I found them a few weeks ago when I was was working on the writing spot for our ANWA meeting. We were working sentence fragments.


Thank you for visiting. Feel free to comment on our blogger's posts.*

*We do not allow commercial links, however. If that's not clear, we mean "don't spam us with a link to your totally unrelated-to-writing site." We delete those comments.