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How to Eliminate Passive Voice From Your Writing

Almost a year ago I started making blog posts and YouTube videos to share my journey to publication and provide writing tips along the way.

Many of those posts were born out of necessity--they were things I’ve researched as I grew as a writer and figured I would share what I learned with you all.

There’s a never-ending pool of videos to do, partly because there’s things I’m still learning about writing.

I’ve learned three major things since beginning the beta process for my novel.

  1. I use too many filler words.

  2. My descriptions are lacking.

  3. I subconsciously love passive voice.

My writing problems benefit you, because after my betas informed me of these issues, I poured myself into research.

Today, we’ll talk about passive voice. This is something I had no idea I had a problem with. Zero. I kind of knew about the filler words, and I suspected my descriptions weren’t great. But passive voice very passively slapped me in the face.

Passive voice.

The devil’s voice, as far as I’m concerned.

I heard of this years ago: if you can tack on “by zombies” at the end of a sentence, then it’s in passive voice.

Example: The building was zombies.

While I loved this rule (mostly due to my unhealthy obsession with zombie movies), it failed me.

As I’m editing, I imagine myself headshotting a zombie every time I have to rewrite a passive sentence, because each zombie failed me. They should have been there for me, to ward me away from the devil’s voice...err...passive voice.

After having a clearer understanding of what makes a sentence passive, the zombie rule can be used as a shortcut.

But I shortcut that shortcut and never really learned about passive voice.

So here we are! Get your shotguns and samurai swords ready, we’re going zombie hunting! (by the way...I don’t watch The Walking Dead but I realize this post might be a little too soon for some of you. I apologize.)

I’m so tempted to keep saying the devil’s voice.

What is it and how do you find it?

Here's a grammatical answer according to the very accurate Wikipedia: The noun or noun phrase that would be the object of an active sentence (such as Our troops defeated the enemy) appears as the subject of a sentence with passive voice (e.g. The enemy was defeated by our troops).

If you had a mini-seizure reading that, don’t worry. I did too.

Don’t come at me with “object” and “noun phrase” and “subject” unless you want me to tune the world out.

The easy answer: The noun performing the action is omitted from the sentence or at the end of the sentence, preceded with “by.”

A verb of be in the following form: am, is, was, were, are, or been, followed by a past participle verb (verb ending in ed, -d, -t, -en, or -n).

A form of be + past participle verb = passive voice.

Let’s look at examples.

The room was painted. Here we have was + -ed. Zombie headshot!

Twelve hotdogs must have been consumed by the end of the night. (this one’s a trick!) There’s also no subject in this one, because by was thrown in so the zombie could get away!

Just kidding, he didn’t, because you’re smarter than that. This sentence had been + -ed.

The duet was sung by Mary and Joe. Another trick! Here we have was but no past participle verb fitting our above guide. That’s because not all verbs fit into that guide! If you’re not sure, Google will tell you the past participle of “sing” is “sung.”

The takeaway? Look for the tense of be used in your novel. If there’s a verb of some kind, red flag it! Look up the past participle of that verb and if it’s used in your sentence, then you found yourself a zombie!

What’s so bad about zombies?

In a passive sentence, the subject is acted upon. In most fiction writing, you want your reader to feel like they’re the character, like they can imagine the character performing these actions.

It’s difficult to imagine that if the character is being acted upon.

Passive sentences fall flat because we don’t know who’s performing the action until the end of the sentence, if ever. This distracts the reader from the action and could slow your scene down.

Active sentences are concise, which is what you want when writing a novel--to eliminate wordy sentences. While you might end up only getting rid of your be variation and by, that’s two useless words you don’t need. More importantly, that’s two useless words your reader doesn’t need to waste time reading.

Don’t panic. Zombies are scary, and they drool, and they tend to make a mess when you kill them.

But we can handle it.

The tools you need? Yo brain silly. And fingers. To, you know...type.

You kill that zombie passive voice by: Moving your subject to the front of the sentence.

(I’m imagining the hydra from Hercules gasping right now).

That’s it! Move the subject to the front and find a way to reword it so the sentence is still legible.

Taking our earlier examples:

  • Twelve hotdogs must have been consumed by the end of the night. (There’s no subject here, so we’ll pretend we’re dealing with hungry kids)

The kids must have consumed twelve hot dogs by the end of the night.

  • The duet was sung by Mary and Joe. (We already have our subject, yay!)

Mary and Joe sang the duet.

Notice anything? Most of the sentence stays the same. That’s both frustrating and relieving, kind of like finding zero is the answer to a four-page math problem. If you can’t tell, I’m still angry with every professor that ever did that.

Congratulations, you’ve now figured out how to identify and neutralize a zombie!

Training yourself not to do it

Until now, we’ve talked about how to avoid passive sentences after you’ve written them.

Since this is a glaring issue with my writing, I’m concerned with finding a way to avoid it altogether. Each sentence I have to edit takes time away from my writing and marketing.

How do I fix this? By editing every passive sentence I write. Repetition of this task has already proven effective. I find fewer and fewer passive sentences in my writing. While I'm nowhere near perfect, I'm certainly glad my beta readers pointed this issue out to me.

Once again, this is why you NEED beta readers. Can you imagine if I sent that book to my editor? Her brain probably would have exploded. And then she would have charged me more to highlight every passive sentence in my novel.


Interesting side note if you dictate: I have more passive sentences when I dictate than I do when I'm typing at the keyboard. The dictated portions of my writing are older than my typed portions, so that might have something to do with it, but it's awful.

Want some night vision and silencers to go with your zombie survival kit?

Enter the Pro Writing Aid online software. A lot of us have seen those commercials for Grammarly, but personally, they were just too expensive for me.

Pro Writing Aid is a software that scans your writing for things like diction errors, readability issues, passive voice, subordinate clauses, adverbs and much more. I run everything I write through this software now (I have it installed on my computer, although you can use their online version without downloading anything), including this post. I had to edit out some passive voice from my passive voice post.

My links for Pro Writing Aid are affiliate links, but I wholeheartedly stand by this program. They didn't pay me to advertise it and I didn't receive a free version from them. I paid for the program myself.

The premium version is currently $40 per year, although they might send you a discount when you sign up to use the free version. Some features are removed for the free version but I used that for a couple months before diving in and purchasing.

I hope this week's post was helpful! Even if you already knew what passive voice was, I hope you took something away from my extended zombie metaphor :)

I'm curious to know: have you learned something about your writing from someone else? What was it? I feel like I knew so little about my own writing, and I'm thankful every day for my awesome beta readers for showing me these things.

Happy writing everyone!

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