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Passive Verbs: Avoid Them and Breathe New Life Into Your Fiction

Creative writing instructors and editors tend to get obsessive about removing passive verbs from fiction. I've harped on this subject so often I have occasionally caused students to agonize over how to avoid using "was" and other forms of "to be" completely. You needn't banish every was, were, am, are and is from your writing. Instead, learn when to use these verbs and when not to.

Sometimes I'm guilty of lumping continuous verbs into the same category as passive verbs because both types, used incorrectly, create wordiness and cause slow, turgid writing that could be much livelier.

Occasionally, various forms of "To be" verbs are necessary as linking verbs. I used one in the previous sentence to link verbs to necessary. Other examples:

  • He is hungry.
  • She was thirsty.
  • The train was late.

Often, with extra thought, you can replace even these linking verbs with a stronger verb that strengthens the sentence. For example, "she was thirsty" could become "she needed water."

Nevertheless, both passive verbs and continuous verbs cause problems for writers.

We call a verb passive when a writer uses a "to be" verb to place the focus on the object of the sentence, rather than on the subject.

Too many passive verbs clutter writing and weaken sentences. The result is dullness in the writing. Efficient, active verbs reduce wordiness and create more powerful sentences. For example:

Passive: Pizzas are eaten after most games.
Active: We eat pizza after most games.

Passive: There are too many people who want to go.
Active: Too many people want to go.

Passive: He is liked by most people.
Active: Most people like him.

Passive: I was taught by Professor Gibbons.
Active: Professor Gibbons taught me.

Sometimes writers, even experienced ones, also tend to overuse the continuous verb form, which may weaken and slow writing. Often the past or present tense would make writing crisper. For example:

Continuous: She was wearing a purple jacket so he would recognize her.
Past: She wore a purple jacket so he would recognize her.

Continuous: He was going to eat before he left.
Past: He planned to eat before he left.

To correctly use the continuous tense, use it only when the action is necessarily ongoing. For example:

Correct: I was walking the dog when the car hit the tree.
Incorrect: I walked the dog when the car hit the tree.

Correct: She was talking on the phone when I dropped by.
Incorrect: She talked on the phone when I dropped by.

The past tense in either of these examples would change the meaning of the sentence, and the past continuous form works better. Tip: Notice that the word "when" often accompanies the correct use of the continuous form because something interrupts the action.

Questions also correctly use the continuous verb form:

Correct: Are you planning to drive with us?
Correct: Is he coming with you or me?
Correct: Was I supposed to meet you at 6:30 or 7:00?

If you know the difference between these verb forms, you may use "was" with confidence when necessary and avoid incorrectly using passive or continuous forms.

Weak writing falters through more than poor verb choices. Not everyone can afford a professional editor or writing mentor, but for those who can, a quick read of your work by a professional will often point to subtle changes that may significantly improve your work.

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