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Passive Verbs

1) A single, active verb is more effective than passive verbs or passive verbs paired with adjectives. 

Search and kill as many passive verbs as you can. Look for: am, is, are, was, were, being, be, been and any verb ending in -ing. A few passive verbs in a manuscript is fine; a few in a paragraph aren't.

2) Starting a phrase with a passive -ing verb implies the two things happened simultaneously.

 Dick danced, twirling plates on his head, and singing a song.

 Dick twirled plates on his head as he danced and sang.

Dick could potentially do those things at the same time if he was truly talented. 

  Picking up her briefcase and locking the door, Sally rushed off to work.

Sally can't pick up her brief case, lock the door, and rush off to work all at the same time. The sentence should read:

  Sally picked up her briefcase, locked the door then rushed to work.

If the items cannot happen simultaneously, change it.

3) There is a difference between passive voice and past tense.

Past tense means the action already occurred. 

Passive voice has to do with who did or did not do something. It almost always includes forms of the verb to be. In active voice, the subject does something. In the passive voice, something is done to the subject.

It is generally considered better to use active rather than passive verbs.

4) In the revision phase, as you read the sentences, identify the subject and verb.

Does the subject of the verb perform the action of the main verb or does he sit there while something or someone else performs the action? If the subject performs the verb, it is active. If it doesn’t, it’s passive.

  Passive: The victim was drowned around midnight.
  Active:  The murderer drowned the victim around midnight.

  Passive: Jane was scratched by Puff.
  Active: Puff scratched Jane.

In instances when the writer does not know the doer of the verb, the doer is not important, or there are many doers, it is acceptable to use passive verbs.

If you intentionally obscure whodunit, you might say, “Dick was murdered.” If you say, “It was just lying there,” you have indicated that it doesn’t matter who left it lying there or why.

5) A character might always speak passively as a quirk.

6) Linking verbs indicate a state of being, not action.

Do a search for: is, was, are, seems, becomes. These are red flags.

7) Passive verbs and modifiers shouldn’t be mixed.

If you begin a sentence with a modifying phrase, it becomes a dangling modifier if you follow it with a passive verb.

 Sighing softly, the book was placed on the table.

The sentence forgot to mention who sighed and placed the book on the table. Supplying the missing who turns it into an active sentence.

Sighting softly, Jane placed the book on the table.

Jane sighed softly and placed the book on the table.

Revising for passive verbs is a tedious chore. However, the more you practice using verbs correctly, the more natural it will become.

For more information on revision and proper verb usage, check out Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers. I don't revise a book without it.

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