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Bob Nailor

While After When

There is more to the Active vs. Passive than making sure the verb tense is correct. In other words, "He had watched the trees fall." is passive. Publishers look for active (action) in the story: "He watched the trees fall."

But there is more. Sentence structure can be passive by using certain words which reveal weak writing. Enter in "While," "After" and "When."

When he reached the door, he turned and waved goodbye to those sitting in the room.

It is an "okay" sentence but it is weak writing. There is no power in the sentence. This is a passive form.

How about we try to pump up the power?

He grabbed the doorknob, opened the door and turned to wave goodbye to those sitting in the room.

Notice that the sentence is no longer "waiting" for him to reach the door? The new line has stronger action, letting the reader know the same amount of information.

After he poured the coffee, he leaned down to kiss the top of her head.

Again, the sentence is grammatically correct, but once more, a passive state of structure. Re-write it.

He poured the coffee then leaned down to kiss the top of her head.

By simply removing "after" from the sentence, the line now is active and shows action, rather than telling.

A writer must make sure each sentence is active and reveals the story without telling, but by showing. Passive sentence structures tend to dull the story.

Consider this:

Time had passed. Three weeks had gone by since she looked out the bedroom window where she recuperated. Things had changed.

Instead, write it as:

She gazed out the bedroom window for the first time in three weeks. Recuperation had kept her bed-ridden and now she saw the landscape had changed drastically.

In the first example, above, it is a passive style of showing that time has elapsed. Even "While she recuperated..." is a poor way to designate the passage of time. In the second example, the reader is still given the same information, but it is in an active format.

Consider and watch for these words. They weaken your writing. Go back and edit, re-structure your sentences to delete them and empower your writing.

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Onisha Ellis
Passive vs active all of this makes me head hurt!! You do write great tips and I enjoy the examples.
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lisa jey davis
Great tips - once again Bob! I am a big fan of adding color to the words on the page, and getting away from passive voice. Thanks!
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Scott Bury
Passive sentences are the most common element of writing that I change when I edit professionally. I think they're the result of the corporate mindset - never take credit so you can never be blamed.
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Susan Buchanan
Fantastic post and put very succinctly too
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