Giving Words Life: Editing for Passive Voice and Verb Strength by L.E. Sterling
This post is for emerging writers who are having trouble diagnosing the problem with their prose. Put it another way, why isn’t the world in your head leaping off the page? You might be wondering about the strength of your character development, your world building, or your plot. But often, problems with prose can be traced right back to the mechanics of your sentences, and can be fixed by following a few basic suggestions. One of the most important ones is editing for passive sentence constructions.
I thought I knew how to write when I finally learned this simple lesson. I had already completed two university degrees after all, a B.A. and an M.A. in Creative Writing. I’d written scores of essays, and had published a novel, short stories, poetry, and dozens of articles. Then I found myself in a PhD program in English Literature. My supervisor had a knack for helping his students develop beautifully written work by helping them understand the mechanics of writing. His lesson on passive sentence construction has served me very well ever since.
Consider this: passive language, along with the verbs you choose, has a massive impact on your writing’s strength. Although it can completely transform a manuscript in one easy pass, this is one of the most overlooked tools in a writer’s toolbox. But what does passive sentence construction even look like? Here’s an example:
Ultimately, the characters had been thinking about heading to the Promise Land.
Here is an example of the same sentence, edited to be more active:
The characters migrated to the Promise Land.
There is a tremendous difference between the two sentences above: the first strings you along, telling you the characters eventually figure out what the heck they are about. The second gets you there quickly, eliding most of the verb clause of the sentence in favour of action.
Technically, the first sentence is grammatically correct. There’s nothing wrong with saying that characters had been thinking about something. But if you pull a bunch of sentences together, all with clunky, complex verb constructions, you end up with a messy bedroom of words that a readers’ brain is going to trip over.
The second sentence is better – but it’s still not really working as something the reader will sink their teeth into. It reads more like an essay than a piece of living prose. “The characters,” for instance, keeps you at a distance from the subjects of the sentence.
You could just as easily turn this into something magical by changing the way you name the subjects and subbing in more interesting verbs.
Sally, Fred and Moe picked their way across the rock-strewn desert to the Promise Land.
Here’s another, longer example.
I had only been at the castle a short while. There had been no time to rest, and when I’d thought about pulling off my boots, I had wanted to cry. The enemy had been defeated, but at what cost? We were going to meet later at the Great Hall to discuss our next strategy, but I wasn’t sure any longer that it mattered. Nothing would matter after today.
The above example is more typical of late 19th century writing style than modern English. And though I’m a huge fan of 19th C novels, this is not as interesting as it could be. The paragraph could have evoked a more dramatic, interesting scene. Instead, it’s clunky. Worse, it lacks dramatic tension, even though the thing it describes is fraught with tension.
But: and here’s the pro tip: you can actually build dramatic tension right into your sentences. Compare the previous paragraph to this one:
The rooks bore down from the sky, tiny black bullets. I raised the sight to my eye. The rain broke across my shoulders and arms. I shivered but didn’t lower the gun. A piercing whistle penetrated through the rain but I stood there, soaked, ready. Three. Two. One. The gun rocketed in my hands. It hurt. It hurt so badly.
More active sentence constructions quickens the pace of your sentences. Suddenly the action of each paragraph speeds up. There’s far more dramatic tension in each paragraph, too, because there are no extraneous verb constructions standing between your reader and the action.
But once your sentences flow more quickly, you’ll notice one other thing: your verbs. Verbs are incredibly important anchors in every sentence. This is the ACTION, so choose your verbs wisely.
For instance: instead of a sentence such as, “We went to the Great Hall to discuss our next move,” try imagining what kind of scene you want to pain for the reader.
“We plodded to the Great Hall.”
“We tiptoed our way to the Great Hall.”
“We hurried to the Great Hall.”
As you can see from these three sentences, verbs construct complex pictures. Each verb choice here sets three completely different interpretations for the sentences, each with a different tone and a mood.
Believe it or not, these simple techniques can literally mean the difference between a manuscript that your readers take a week or more to read, versus a manuscript they devour in an afternoon. Finally, don’t feel daunted if you have an entire manuscript to go back over, either. The more you polish each sentence, the more your entire manuscript will shine.
About the Book:
But Nolan Storm, their mysterious leader, has his own agenda. When Storm backtracks on his promise to rescue Margot, Lucy takes her fate into her own hands and sets off for Russia with her True Born bodyguard and maybe-something-more, the lethal yet beautiful Jared Price. In Russia, there’s been whispered rumors of Plague Cure.
While Lucy fights her magnetic attraction to Jared, anxious that his loyalty to Storm will hurt her chances of finding her sister, they quickly discover that not all is as it appears…and discovering the secrets contained in the Fox sisters’ blood before they wind up dead is just the beginning.
As they say in Dominion, sometimes it’s not you…it’s your DNA.
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About the Author:
Originally hailing from Parry Sound, Ontario, L.E. spent most of her summers roaming across Canada in a van with her father, a hippie musician, her brothers and an occasional stray mutt – inspiring her writing career. She currently lives in Toronto, Ontario. Visit her at: le-sterling.com.
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