Passive vs Active Verbs in Your Manuscript

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The very first draft of my MS was a total mess. I’d spent 18 months writing it and was ecstatic when I’d finished.  Or thought I had. I started looking for a place to send it and found a willing publisher. So off it went. Unedited. Unrevised. Horrendous.

Since then I’ve done a lot of reading and learning, talking with other writers and learning. Oh yeah, I meant to put that word twice. Learning. It’s what a writer does each step of the way. I found some awesome blogs to follow, which I’ll list in another post; I found hundreds of writers, editors, agents, consultants and publishers to follow on Twitter; I listened in on Twitter chats, participating when I had something to say; I listened to Podcasts and Blog Radio casts. But while I use the past tense verb here, it should be present tense because I continue to do all of these things every week. I learn.

So what have I learned? The second biggest thing was my use of verbs. (First was Point of View). My original MS was full of passive and weak verbs. In case you are in the beginning stages of this learning experience, I’ll give you some pointers and maybe save you some time.

Passive verbs are boring. They show inaction or lack of action and who wants to read about characters who do nothing?

Here are some basic rules to remember:

If the subject performs the action of the main verb, the sentence is active.

If the subject sits there while something else, named or unnamed, performs an action on it, the sentence is passive.

If the main verb is a linking verb (is, was, were, have, has, had, are, seems (to be), been, being, becomes, etc.), then the verb shows no action; it merely describes a state of being which is passive.

Past Tense:

Active Voice              I taught; I learned

Passive Voice           I was (have been) taught (by someone); It was (has been) learned (by someone)

Present Tense:

Active Voice              I teach; I learn

Passive Voice           I am (being) taught; I am learning (from someone)

Using passive verbs is not wrong. There are times when its use can make a statement.

If you want to downplay the action of the story:

As the bullet entered the body a lesson was learned by all present.

When no one knows who is doing the action:

The girl was hit over the head with a baseball bat.

The teacher (subject doing action) teaches (action) the students (object receiving action).

The students (subject receiving action) are taught (passive verb) by the teacher (doing action).

Brian (subject doing action) washes (action verb) the car (object receiving action).

The car (subject receiving action) is washed (passive verb) by Brian (doing action).

Readers like stories with strong verbs. Here is a paragraph from an early version of my MS. Compare the final verb to the passive verb in parenthesis. I’ve also shortened lengthy sentences so they read crisply and clearly, excess is crossed out. Below the paragraph is the rewritten version.  Read the two paragraphs and see which you prefer.

They walked to the bedroom. where Zarena offered to help the little girl (get her dress off) undress. Once inside the bathroom Long Tu first reached into her pocket, found pulled Slither out and placed him in(to) the sink with the stopper closed and a little water in the bottom.  The snake stretched, then curled into the water and actually looked (like he was purring) as though he purred. Next, Zarena unbuttoned the torn filthy dress and lifted it over Long Tu’s head.  She noticed that even Long Tu’s underwear was torn and dirty and made a mental note (that she needed new everything)to replace even that.  Once the thin, brown-skinned little girl was naked, Zarena helped her into the steaming shower and slid the curtain closed.  As (she was sliding) the curtain slid, she glanced down at Long Tu’s skinny thighs. Something looks wrong, (she thought to herself)( before turning) she frowned, shrugging. (to find) She went to her dresser. Long Tu needs something to wear.  As she rummaged for the smallest tee-shirt she could find, her mind thoughts (kept turning back) remained on Long Tu’s thighs.  (A niggling thought wriggled like a worm weaving in and out of her consciousness until she grasped it and held on.) With an very audible gasp she realized what was wrong.  There (was) no harp-shaped birthmark anywhere on the child! The child has no birthmark! She remembered learning from someone that the mark was the way to tell a true Vigorio from a false one.  A false one?  Is that even possible?

slither

They walked to the bedroom.

“I’ll help you get undressed,” Zarena smiled.

Once inside the bathroom Long Tu reached into her pocket, pulled Slither out and placed him into the sink with the stopper closed and a little water in the bottom.  The snake stretched, curled into the water and actually looked as though he purred. Zarena unbuttoned the torn filthy dress and lifted it over Long Tu’s head.  She noticed that Long Tu’s underwear was torn and dirty and made a mental note to replace even that.  Once the thin, brown-skinned little girl was naked, Zarena helped her into the steaming shower and slid the curtain closed.  As the curtain slid, she glanced down at Long Tu’s skinny thighs. Something looks wrong, she frowned, shrugging. She went to her dresser. Long Tu needs something to wear.  As she rummaged for the smallest tee-shirt she could find, her thoughts remained on Long Tu’s thighs.  With an audible gasp she realized what was wrong.  The child has no birthmark! She remembered learning the mark was the way to tell a true Vigorio from a false one.  A false one?  Is that even possible?

2 responses »

  1. Thank you for an informative post using actual examples to demonstrate what you mean! My MS is in the first draft right now, full of these mistakes. It makes it easier to know what to look for when editing when other writers/editors show more than tell us what they mean by certain things.

    I’ll be checking your blog frequently🙂

    • I’m delighted you got so much out of it. I agree with the example thing, comes from being a teacher. Happy following.

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