One of the main criticisms I received from my fiction professor at the beginning of the semester was my use of passive verbs. There, look, I used one in that sentence right there! Was. Sure, the sentence is fine (look, I did it again! Is) but slightly weak. Here’s a better sentence: My fiction professor critiqued my use of passive verbs in several of my stories this semester.
(Okay, I’m going to shut off my passive/active radar for a second while I write this post. It’s similar to counting how many times you say “like” in a discussion about how you hate people who say “like”…I’m going to notice it EVERY. SINGLE. TIME in this post.)
I didn’t realize how often I wrote with passive verbs until my professor pointed it out to me. I had a habit of using passive +-ing verbs (She is running, I am crying), a habit I think I developed after reading YA novels for years. Passive verbs are super common in YA, I’ve found, because it’s how we talk, and authors want their MCs to sound authentic. But once I reread my short stories and circled every passive verb, I realized almost every sentence had one!
Most of the time, active verbs sharpen your writing, particularly in fiction. Solid action words are almost always better than a dulled down version (“I sprint down the sidewalk” vs. “I am sprinting down the sidewalk”). A quick way to strengthen your writing is to look for passive verbs when you edit (see list below) and try and rearrange some of your sentences to contain active verbs instead. They tighten up your story A TON. I wrote a short-short/flash fiction piece with 99.9% active verbs…SO FUN! Try it sometime! Maybe I’ll post my piece tomorrow as an example.
This isn’t to say passive verbs don’t have their place. I accidentally left out “has” and “had” in a few places where my story needed them (past-perfect tense). Too many active verbs can be distracting in the same way certain dialogue tags can be (Sometimes “He said” is better than “He boomed like a thunderclap” because the longer tag can disrupt the reader’s flow). It’s important to achieve a balance in your piece.
Active verbs aren’t solely used for fiction writing. They help spice up a cover letter or query, article or announcement. So even if you aren’t a creative writer, try and work some active verbs into your life. They’re like vitamins for your writing!
Hopefully this post is helpful! Here’s a list of passive verbs for you to avoid when you can (we learned them all set to the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle, when I was in eighth grade!) :