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My latest fiction piece was recently critiqued by some of my fellow writers, and the results were surprising. Apparently, I like to use “was,” as well as, pronouns a lot. This sparked a brief conversation about not using as many passive sentences. When I got home, I was a bit dumbfounded about how to make these changes, so I made one of the biggest mistakes a writer can probably make. I immediately started tying to fix my work. After an unpleasant hour or two, I gave up. Every time I tried to write a sentence without a pronoun, “was” somehow made its way into the sentence, and every time I tried to take “was” out of a sentence, a pronoun would appear. I started to feel like I was trying to figure out the solution to a formula where X was impossible to determine.

This wasn’t, however, the first time I’ve been told that I write a lot of passive sentences. It’s just that I don’t see them when I’m writing. I create a chapter, read it over, and love it (most of the time). I prepare myself for dumb mistakes, ridiculous editing errors, and the like, but trying to stop writing passive sentences isn’t what I expect. More than that, it’s a far more daunting task than correcting punctuation. It means I need to really reevaluate the way I write. Not to change it all, but to just be more aware of it.

I spent some time the next day researching passive sentences, even though it’s something I’ve done before. These were some of the things I learned:
• Passive sentences often occur because the object is where the subject should be.
• Passive sentences often have a lot of useless words.
• Passive sentences use the verb “to be” a lot.

Those three points were the most useful to me, because they pretty much sum up the feedback I received. But even with this information, I’m struggling to apply it to my own writing. Here is an example of what I’m struggling with:
One of my typical sentences: He was scared of what might happen if he allowed himself to take that next step into a place both foreign and frightening.
How I think I can improve it: He couldn’t take the next step. Fear of such a foreign place kept him hesitating on the threshold.

I can already tell trying to write more active sentences is going to a difficult concept for me to master, but I know it’s something worth improving upon. Any good hints or tips? Does anyone else struggle with this?

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  1. For me, to write in active sentences I’ve had to think from the character’s POV. Take your example. In your passive voice, you’re telling the readers what’s occurring. In the second, awesome improved, sentence, you’re sharing what your character is feeling and why. It’s another take on Show don’t tell.

  2. This is coming from the less is more camp.

    You’re almost there Lisa. Now cut the first sentence and let the second stand strong and powerful in it’s own glory. If writing a worthy sentence was easy, everyone would do it, right?

    So keep working and take the reader’s breath away.


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