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Eliminating Passive Writing

Passive Writing is common pitfall, one so insidious that it even pops up in the writing of very experienced authors from time to time. It can sap the life and energy out of the most exciting story.

I’ve read entire manuscripts written in passive sentences, which make the story sound like it’s about to start, but never takes off. Passive writing tells rather than shows; the author circles the story without ever letting the reader become involved in the action. Here’s an example:

In the field was a mouse. He was sitting in the tall grass. There was a cat across the road. The cat smelled the mouse, and began to walk to the field. There was a noise in the grass. The cat and mouse looked at each other. Each sentence falls like a lead weight on the page.

Sentences that start with forms of there was, there is, and there are (or he/she was, he/she is, etc.) are telling and almost always passive. Search for these constructions in your writing and eliminate them. Began to can also be passive.

When writing actively, verbs are your most valuable tool. Pick verbs that describe exactly how your character is acting; alternate words for sat carry different emotional meanings (perched, slouched, squat ). The subject and verb contain the important information in each sentence, so keep those elements close together and toward the front of the sentence to achieve the greatest impact.

Another problem with the above example is that there is no main character. The viewpoint of both the cat and mouse are shown. In one sentence — There was a noise in the grass — you’re not sure who is hearing the sound. If you write the story from one point of view it forces you to see the events through your main character’s eyes, thus leading to active writing.

Here is the cat-and-mouse scenario with the passive writing eliminated, using specific, descriptive verbs, and adding a bit of dialogue:

The mouse lolled in the field, nibbling on a seed. He sighed as the soft rustling of the grass caressed his ears. Suddenly, he leapt to his feet as a rumbling purrr floated through the breeze. The mouse stared straight into two yellow eyes and a wide, cat grin. “Egads!” he shrieked.

The reader will assume that the cat smelled the mouse and stalked his prey across the field. By eliminating passive writing, the mouse is poised for action, and the story is off and running.

It takes time and practice to eliminate such problems as expository dialogue and passive writing from your work. But the payoff for your hard work and diligence will be a smoother style and a heightened ability to create remarkable stories.

Laura Backes is the publisher of Children's Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children's Writers. For more information about writing children's books, including free articles, market tips, insider secrets and much more, visit Children's Book Insider's home on the web at

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