Strong Verbs: The Passive Voice

Strong verbs drive readers to keep reading. How?

She turned around to face me, naked.

She whipped around to face me, naked.

See how no matter how naked I make the subject of this sentence, you get a clearer picture with the second version? That’s because the verb whipped tells you a lot more about the picture than the verb turned. Whipped is more specific and more descriptive–a stronger verb choice.

Strong verbs are a style issue. So this lesson is not about grammar rules. It’s a grammar-based tip: use strong verbs in your writing.

But how do you tell a strong verb from a weak one? When I’m editing, I scan for these four typical weak verb red flags:

  1. passive voice
  2. –ly adverbs
  3. fuzzy verbs
  4. wuzzy verbs

In this post, I’ll focus on #1, Passive Voice.

What’s wrong with the passive voice? Use of passive voice is a common writing problem.  It’s not incorrect grammatically, but it is stylistically drab.

The problem with passive voice is that it doesn’t engage the reader.  It tells us who was being done-to rather than who was doing the doing. Take a look at this sentence:

Her clit was licked by her mistress.

Do you see how the subject, Her clit, doesn’t  have agency? It’s not responsible for the action in the sentence–the licking.  The passive voice takes a very exciting idea–clit licking–and makes it boring by putting the passive object–the clit instead of the mistress–in the driver’s seat.

You fix a sentence like this by asking–who is the real subject of this sentence? Who is doing the licking?

Her mistress licked her clit.

There now, we’re clear and our sentence is active, with the mistress in her rightful position as the subject in the sentence, the party with the agency and the responsibility for the action. Note how this sentence is more succinct and simple as well.

Let’s try another:

More chewing was needed on her earlobe before she warmed to sex.

Again, we’ve got these really sexy and active ideas–ear lobe chewing and warming to sex–and we’ve watered them down by presenting them in a passive voice.

Who needs her ear lobe chewed? Who’s going to do the chewing? Who’s getting warm? Give us a picture, please!

Before she warmed to sex, she needed more chewing on her earlobe.

Or even better:

She needed him to chew on her earlobe before she warmed to sex.

Here are a couple more–just because examples are fun!

Passive: As many hard-ons were generated by his ass as his intellect.

Active: His ass generated as many hard-ons as his intellect.

Passive: She feared the porn would be seen as a threat by Blake.

Active: She feared Blake would see the porn as a threat.

But wait–if the passive voice is not incorrect, it must have some practical uses, right? Right.

Use passive voice when you want to shroud your subject in mystery:

His virginity was stolen on his sixteenth birthday.

Okay, we’ve got a hot idea here–first-timer teen sex. But we don’t know who stole the teen’s virginity, and maybe that’s the author’s intention. Maybe the author wants you to wonder who stole this character’s virginity at this tender age. After all, we could have written:

An experienced lover stole his virginity on his sixteenth birthday.

That’s a more active sentence. But then we’ve answered all the questions. We could also write:

He lost his virginity at sixteen.

Again, we’ve got a more active sentence here, but we’ve missed an opportunity to hint at a mystery. Our first example–the one with the passive voice–really works the best.

So use the passive voice sparingly and well when you want to create mystery about the active doer in a sentence. Otherwise, keep it active, and you’ll keep your reader engaged.

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    • mags
    • January 6th, 2010

    You make me want to be a better writer! This is such a fun way to learn.

  1. Kristy, you are a genius! This is clearest and most enjoyable explanation I’ve had yet on active vs. passive voice.

  1. April 14th, 2010
  2. May 4th, 2010
  3. May 19th, 2010

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