Furry Writers' Guild Forum

Day two: Eliminate Passive Verbs

Eliminate Passive Verbs

Of the four things we’re going to address, passive verbs are my favorite to hate. Primarily, that’s because I had a raging passive verb problem when I first started writing, and it’s a really hard habit to kick… or even see until someone points it out. I understand firsthand how frustrating it is at the beginning, and how sometimes it’s next to impossible to come up with a way to get rid of that blasted “was.”
So, what is a passive verb? It’s any form of the verb “to-be.”

This includes:
be, being, been, am, are, was, were and is.

They seem like perfectly ordinary, useful words, don’t they? Except in commercial fiction they can be a big problem. Using too many (or any, some would say) passive verbs can destroy the impact of your writing. They are nasty, insidious little ninjas hiding amongst your words and stealing all your story’s punch when you’re not looking.

Exactly why are passive verbs a problem, though? Why should we do our best to find and kill as many of the little monsters as possible?
1- Passive verbs are almost always a big red flag for telling instead of showing. Though that’s probably the most misunderstood writing issue there is and is definitely worth an entire class on its own. (The only reason it’s not part of this one) For our purposes, we only need to know that passive verbs signal telling, and telling too much is a problem.

2- Passive verbs are also weak verbs. Often, you can kill a passive verb by replacing it with a stronger, active verb. Active verbs make more powerful prose. They pack a bigger punch.

3- Using a lot of passive verbs puts your characters into a situation where they are existing more than they are doing. It sucks away your action. So instead of watching your fantastic characters romping about on the page, the reader is watching them “just be.” Imagine that you went to a film, or turned on a TV show where the characters just sat around being and you’ll get why this is not so great on the page.
Passive writing can be the kiss of death that prompts the reader to close your book and move on to an episode of their favorite Netflix drama.

So, hopefully we can agree that we need to at least try to root out the little demons. Before we can do that, we need to find them. We could do a document search for every form of ‘to be’ (and I actually recommend doing this to see if a manuscript has a was-ing problem) but that isn’t always going to work if you have a time crunch or a very long book on your hands. It is better to train your eye to spot them during edits, and even better than that to learn not to put the things in the work in the first place.

Let’s look at three common red flags/danger areas where passive verbs are highly likely to pop up.
Ask yourself if you’re ing-ing a lot? Okay, that requires a little more explanation. Remember that rejected novel I mentioned? Well, once I worked out what the problem was, it was impossible not to see it. When I wrote the book, I thought my characters walked, talked, danced and fought their way through the novel, but when I looked at if after learning about the dreaded was, it WAS obvious what I’d done.
They “were walking,” “were talking,” “were dancing,” and “were fighting.”
If you find a lot of -ing verbs running amok on the page, odds are they have mated up with a plethora of “were” or “was.”
This one’s a little trickier to fix, but pretty easy to spot. Check every character description, setting description, etc. and you’re liable to find some was-ing. He was tall, her hair was long, it was a nice day and the town was large and full of people who were afraid of strangers. If you write in the present tense, you’re not off the hook. Replace that was with is or am and you’ll have a similar problem.
-main action
Here’s where we really get into the dove-tailed relationship between passive verbs and telling vs. showing. In the meat and bones of your story, anytime you tell us your character was angry instead of showing them clenching their fist, we’re in both passive and telling territory. If it was a devastating blow, far better to say, the blow blasted him from his feet, or the blow drove his brain into his boots. Poor guy.
I want to mention contractions simply as a side-note. It is far better to use contractions than to sound stilted and overly-formal. Please contract, for your reader’s sake, unless you have an intentionally proper character. That being said, when you are taking count of your was/were/am/are’s in a document, you have to count the ones hiding in your contractions as well. We’re is we are and a passive strike against your grand total. It’s, she’s, they’re etc. Use them, but also, count them.

That being said, how many passive verbs are too many? How many are okay? I’m going to freak you out a little bit here, but my go-to strategy is to kill them all. I qualify that with the explanation that when you try to get every last one, you are liable to leave one or two behind, and that is just about the perfect amount. As a hard and fast rule, if you have more than two or three on a page, you should probably get to work trying to rewrite at least one of them.
Tomorrow, we’ll go into strategies and solutions for doing exactly that.

On a final note, there are a lot of related, weak verbs, that can dim the power of your writing as well. Verbs like had, made, did, etc. can often be pumped up with a more specific, punchier action verb. Keeping your verbs strong goes a long way toward keeping your writing exciting and active!
For now, try this experiment. Manually scan or do a document search on your sample pages and see how many passive verbs (don’t forget your contractions) you can find. Feel free to share in the thread if you like, and tomorrow we’ll see if we can’t kill them all, and how that might change the writing.

I’ve heard a lot about passive verbs hurting one’s writing, but I’ve never had it pointed out to me. And even after reading this, I’m still not sure I completely understand. I think I was able to cite some from the first five pages of my story. Here’s what I found, if I’m right:

Page 1:
was - 1
He’s - 1
were - 1

Page 2:
were - 1
are - 1
it’s - 1
(And further proof of first draft; fox becomes rabbit, then fox again…)

Page 3:
None found

Page 4:
It’s - 1
is - 2
was - 2
As - 1
had - 1

Page 5:
don’t - 1

Confirmation would be appreciated, but not necessary. We’ll probably get some more words of wisdom tomorrow that will help more. Though I am pretty sure I know one spot on page 4 that now needs works… Yay first drafts.

Looks like you counted fine. Some of them are dialogue and I usually go easy on those. :slight_smile:
I really enjoyed the western genre for a change. Lot’s of fun!
I wouldn’t say from the draft that you really have much of a passive verb problem. We can probably rework a few of them but there really aren’t that many.
Should have seen the first draft of my first novel. UGH. they were ALL passive.

So I spent 24 hours muttering THAT’S NOT WHAT A PASSIVE VERB IS, then I got over myself and went through my WIP with your tips in mind :slight_smile: And while I found cases where continuous action requires imperfect tense, I also found a bunch of stuff I could make stronger by eliminating ‘was’. Thank you for teaching a middle-aged dog a new trick!

I know it’s not the same as “passive voice” which is something along the lines of: “the hair was brushed by the comb” but I’m interested in what other definitions of passive verb you were thinking of. If there are more interpretations, I’m way open to learning them too, and it might helps someone else in the thread too.

Please feel free to add, and even argue! :slight_smile:

Nah, it was the passive voice thing! I see a lot of confusion online about the passive; I feel like there should be a different term for what you’re describing, to prevent mixups, but I can’t think what it might be. ‘Was-ing’, perhaps!

‘Doing not being’!

(how many more times will I edit this before I am satisfied?)

I think technically you’re right, and what I’m doing is just reducing “was” and less active verbs. And you’re going to laugh, but that’s what we call it at my critique group. “You’re was-ing again.” “You was-ed all over this one.”

I had an editor reject my first book (thank god!) for what she called “passive verbs” and when I looked it up, I got a lot of info on passive voice/verbs that totally confused me because there was none of that in the manuscript. So I dug a little deeper and worked out that she meant the was-ing thing which a lot of contemporary writing advice also calls passive verbs. Because, you know, we can’t make anything easy! LOL

And actual passive verbs, switching subject and object etc, is a rarer problem to find in writing because it’s so obvious to the ear.

Microsoft Word’s spellcheck hates the passive voice, while I’d argue it has its place; I read a good article on this just the other day…

dig dig dig


But I am keen to eradicate phrases like ‘a black wolf is seen in the clearing’, because that sounds like a bad Neopets RP :slight_smile:

I am so going to use “You’re was-ing again” the next time I get a good opportunity while beta reading. And I will add “go read Frances’s post”!

About “-inging”, I concur with eliminating these whenever possible, but there are times when doing so alters the meaning of the sentence and it’s better to leave them as is. One of those times is if the character is in the middle of or in the process of performing the action when something else happens.

An example:
“We were driving down the road when a deer bolted in front of us.”
If you change that to:
“We drove down the road when a deer bolted in front of us.”
That changes the meaning of the sentence and looks odd. Probably best to leave it alone.

(A nod to Rechan who was editing one of my stories and called out several instances of -inging. At least one I had to stet due to the above argument, but most of the others he was spot on, and I think my subsequent writing improved a little bit because of it.)

Agreed. There will be times when for the sake of meaning you must keep the ing as well as the was.

The inging can sometimes flag another issue too, however, a sentence structure that can lead to logic issues if not used very sparingly and intently.
The: Walking across the room, I opened the door. Or; Pulling out my chair, I sat in it. Which implies the actions happen simultaneously and is impossible. The structure alone isn’t necessarily a problem, but it can be and is often misused in early writing. Over used it can kill a story, and I had one editor whose hair lit on fire when she saw too much of it. (or so she said)
Either way it was an auto-reject for her.

I recently observed that my sentences tend to settle into a rhythm of ‘He A-ed, B-ing the C. He X-ed, Y-ing the Z.’

Once I noticed, it bothered me, so in one story I spent some time painstakingly replacing all the participles with perfect tense, only to have my beta reader suggest participles would sound better. I guess don’t overuse any one device, is the learning point!

Isn’t that just how it goes too. It would be nice if any of this craft stuff was straight up across the board, but then we wouldn’t have the art piece. Early on, I’ve seen things go down one way, get changed for one reader, changed back for another beta, changed again for the editor.
(and if they cut the check, I suppose they get the final say)
Now I like to use this formula: If one person notes it, consider it. If two say something, really consider changing it. If three say it, change it. Otherwise you can get dizzy!
But I love what Gaiman said about critique: If they tell you something is wrong, they’re almost always right. If they tell you how to fix it, they’re almost always wrong.
I love talking craft though, and art. It’s probably why writers tend to surround themselves with other writers. Anyone outside our universe would probably think we were nuts.

I stumbledupon this slice of class. All the sources say to kill adverbs, that’s been pretty 99% aggreance from authors. But this is the first I’ve ever heard of passive verbs. It sounds like verbs are problems in general.

It confused my why Adverbs are problems still. Yet I’ve dropped them from my writing. This is another can of worms that I never really knew about.

Adverbs may be a sign of weak verbs.

IE: “He ran quickly.” vs “He sprinted.”
“She sang the notes loudly.” vs “She belted the notes out.”

Agreed. While adverbs aren’t necessarily “evil” (Twain would argue with me there) they can signal a lazy verb choice like walked swiftly (sprinted, raced, charged) or touched softly (caressed, stroked, petted ect) and the like. For myself, when I see an adverb in my work during edit phase, I just do a quick check to see what stronger single verb I could replace it with. Nine times out of ten, I probably kill the adverb and use the stronger, more specific action.

The passive verbs are still hard for me to wrap my head around how to get rid of them effectively. This may be something I may need to study into next.

Any advice of how to better smooth these tricky buggers out would be great help. The examples for past tense are just one side. I write most of my stories in present tense and that makes it much harder to weed them out for me.

“Crtl-F” helps a ton. It allows me to look for the words I’m trying to remove and pulls me to where I need to be. Another thing you could try is looking at day three’s post and try playing with the exercises Frances created. You could also look at the story excerpt I posted to day four as another way to see words were caught.

And remember, there are a total of eleven words Frances cites to avoid and not all of them are past tense.

Hope this helps a little. =3

It does get easier with practice. Depending on how the verb is used. In a present tense story, you’re dealing with is, am, are usually? But the issue is the same, if you can replace is walking with walks, it makes the verb more active/immediate to the reader.
I’ll try to do some present tense examples but maybe you can post some that are being difficult too? My examples will likely be too simplistic.

He is walking - he walks
the walls are papered in blue flowers -blue flowers cover the walls
The baker is plump and jolly - The baker’s apron strains at the seams and his smile never falters.

I think mostly is and are, roam in most of my writing. I’d have to dig up my work and see if I can find specific things once I get to it again.