Tuesday, March 24

Day Twenty-Four: Revise Any Unnecessary Passive Voice

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Stage Five: Polishing the Draft

Welcome to Day Twenty-Four of Fiction University’s Month-Long Revision Workshop. Over the last twenty-three days we’ve been working on the larger revision issues and ignoring the specifics of the text (in most cases). Our stories are now solid, our structure and various story arcs are sound, and our scenes flow smoothly from one idea to the next. The novel is “done,” and we feel comfortable that it’s good and well-written. Now it’s time to polish our literary jewels until they shine, so roll up those sleeves and let’s get into the nitty gritty of the individual word choices.

Today, we’re going to get active and revise any unnecessary instances of passive voice.

1. Revise Any Unnecessary Passive Voice

Passive voice is when the subject of the sentence gets all the action instead of the subject doing the acting. Such as, “Bob was bitten by a zombie” vs “The zombie bit Bob.”

Bob is the subject here, but Bob doesn't do anything (except maybe stand there like an idiot) and the zombie bites him, thus acting upon him. In active voice, the action (the biting) is done by the subject. Sometimes that requires changing the subject of the sentence.

The easiest way to find passive voice, is to look for to be verbs: is, am, are, was, were, be, have, had, has, do, does, did, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being. While using a to be verb isn’t passive on its own, these verbs are frequently found within writing using the passive voice, especially when paired with a past participle, such as: “Bob was greeted by the nurse” vs. “The nurse greeted Bob.” “By” is another red flag word often seen mixed in with passive voice.

Do a search for these red flag words and look at how they're used in each sentence. Determine if the subject is acting or being acted upon, and rewrite any passive sentences that don’t need to be passive. Sometimes, the passive voice is exactly the right thing for the sentence, so don’t feel you need to change every instance of it.

(Here’s more on the passive voice)

After today’s session, the manuscript as a whole should feel more active and immediate, which should draw readers in faster and keep them reading longer. Next, we’ll take a look at cliches and purple prose.

Tomorrow: Eliminate Cliches and Trim Overwriting 

New to the At-Home Workshop? Find the current list of revision steps and earlier prep work on the introductory page.
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. Janice, thanks so much for all this great information. I haven't been commenting, because I've been swamped, but I've been reading the posts and following along. It's been such an excellent resource.

    1. Most welcome, and no worries, I've noticed the amount of comments has dropped as the workshop has gone on, so you're not alone there :) It's a lot of information to juggle. Glad it's been helpful!