Keep it Active


If the first rule of writing is Show, Don’t Tell, the second should be Keep It Active. Active voice is what puts us in the middle of the action and allows us to feel. Passive voice is what gives us the feeling that someone is telling us a story that happened once upon a time.

Ray could suddenly feel the room widely circling around him before he started to wake up. He was feeling completely horrible. He hated feeling that way. Slowly rolling to his stomach and silently swinging one leg off the bed, he could use the floor as an anchor. The floor was solid and it would help to stop the dizziness. There was a good chance he would be very sick.

Exciting, huh? Okay, let’s examine why this leaves us breathless with boredom.

  • Unnecessary words. Any word that doesn’t add to your story detracts from it. Examine your prose for words like these: started to, began to, proceeded to, could, would, there was, there are, there is, there were, seemed to, tried to.
  • Inactive verbs. Watch for passive verbs, such as was, is, were, and are. Replace them with active verbs, the most active and descriptive words you can think of.
  • Gerunds and present participle words (-ing words). Verbs ending with “ing” are by nature more passive than those ending with “ed.”
  • Adverbs. Those -ly words that precede a verb weaken it, not strengthen it. If your verb isn’t strong enough to make the statement you want it to make, find a stronger verb.
  • Intensifiers. Very, really, totally, completely, truly and so on. Is completely empty any more empty?

Before we look at our example above, let’s examine each of these concepts individually and see how they suck the power right out of our prose. Each of the following sentence pairs gives a poorly written sentence, followed by one that improves it.

  • It is the governor’s plan to visit tomorrow.
    The governor plans to visit tomorrow.
  • John proceeded to dump sand on the castle.
    John dumped sand on the castle.
  • There were eight tiny reindeer leading Santa’s sleigh.
    Eight tiny reindeer led Santa’s sleigh.
  • Jack could hear laughter.
    Jack heard laughter.
  • Erin was sleeping.
    Erin slept.
  • Mike was very tired.
    Mike was exhausted.
    Better yet: Exhaustion dripped through Mike’s bones like slow-pouring molasses.
  • She quickly and purposefully walked to Jarod and sharply hit his arm.
    She strode to Jarod and punched his arm.

Take a moment to rewrite the sentence incorporating an active voice. More than one answer is possible. You may need to omit full sentences or rework others.

Here’s one way to rework the above example:

The room circled around Ray. He rolled to his stomach and swung one leg off the bed, using the floor as an anchor. Even before he opened his eyes, he knew he would be sick.

Half as many words, twice the power. Learning to change ineffective passive prose into active voice is one of the most important things you can do to increase the quality of your fiction.

Keep in mind that grammar tools won’t catch all types of passive sentences. Why not fix all your errors at once? Our editors can transform your work from amateur to professional. Find out which of our Editorial Services can help you the most.

For additional tips, worksheets, and discussions, order your own copy of the The Plain English Writer’s Workbook.

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