Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Passive Nightmare

One thing I’ve quickly learned about myself is that my greatest flaw is passive writing. Old ms drafts ooze with it and I still work to search and destroy parts of my stories that have entire passages of passive phrasing. Anyone who does their homework on writing craft soon sees the animosity out there toward passive writing, and it’s justified. Passive writing is lackluster, sluggish, and boring. Childish even.

Most of the time you run into advice along the lines of:
Get rid of all uses of the word “was” or any conjugation of “to be.”
Get rid of –ing words.
“Had” is bad.

And so forth.

People intend to be helpful and some actually know what they’re talking about. Others don’t. So I muddled along as best I could and through a lot of sweat and effort started to see progress.

And then at random, I picked up another book on writing craft at the library two weeks ago. The emphasis of the book: revising. So I took it home and read it. Lots of good stuff in it but the best part came toward the end. Strong nouns and verbs vs. weak nouns and verbs and an actual method to eradicating passive writing! Not a weak directive to get rid of certain words, instead, a strong emphasis on word pictures and voice that ends up getting the job done right. I felt ecstatic over my find.

And I thought I’d share the reference for anyone else struggling with passive writing. Get your hands on The Weekend Novelist Re-Writes the Novel by Robert J. Ray. Weekends 16 & 17 are the golden chapters. Of course, the whole book is full of great advice on plotting, structure, character motivation, and archetypes.

The best part—I added it to my online wish list and five days later my brother bought it for me as a birthday present. Now I can go back and mark up the book all I want with highlighters.

Some other writing craft books I’ve enjoyed in recent years:
Writing the Breakout Novel and the Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass – If you’re sitting down to write a first draft, wait until you get to the revision stage before picking these up.

Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell – great for first drafts.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King – excellent for those nitpick drafts and final polishes.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White – another good one for final edits and chopping down word count.

The Random House Guide to Good Writing by Mitchell Ivers – great reference for all stages of the writing process.

How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card – another handy reference for speculative fiction writers; especially good for learning rules and tropes so you can break them the right way.

I have read several others, but these are the outstanding ones that worked well for me. And remember, you don’t have to do everything any craft book says to do. Find what works for you and your style. Usually I find one or two sections in any given book on craft that stands out to me.

What are some of your favorite books on the craft of writing? Do you struggle with passive writing or phrasing (or am I standing out here in the cold alone?)


  1. My first ms contained so much passive writing. I ruthlessly eliminated it from my second. Now, I've stopped trying to eliminate every 'was'. Sometimes it just makes sense for the voice.

    I must admit I've never read any books on writing craft. For good or ill, instinct is my guide.

    1. Having read some of your work, I know your instincts are headed in the right direction. =)
      I never realized how passive my writing was until other people started reading it and I began to study writing craft. Thank goodness I didn't bother querying any of those old drafts and novels!

  2. Word 10 finds my passive writing parts for me, but sometimes what it suggests doesn't suit the sentence. :( I have Orson Scott Card's book. Bought it years ago, and I mean years ago. I have one other book; The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman. Another good book.

    1. Darke: I've read an excerpt from The First Five Pages. Thanks for recommending it here.

  3. Great post! I've about made up my mind on what I'm going to do with my trilogy and that first book. Right now I am thinking in terms of "setback".

    I'll make a trip to the library and see if they have your wish book.

    And yes, I am still around, just not as active in circles as I'd like to be, but I am taking steps to be able to be active, and hopefully soon!

    Thanks again

    1. Glad to hear you're still alive and kicking, Dean. =) We've missed you on AQC.

  4. Fiction Writer's Brainstormer was a gem I picked up at the local used book store. Its basic function is to crush any excuse for writer's block and get you moving. I would highly recommend it to any writer who has ever put off spilling ink (or pixels that resemble ink) on a blank page (or pixels that resemble a blank page).

    1. I'll have to see if I can find it. I love a good brainstorming session!

  5. Thanks for the list, I've got The First Five Pages and Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. I'll have to add the others to my wishlist. I had a real big problem with passive. The Marathon helped me spot most of them, but it's always good to do more research. I also just picked up Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell, from the Library.

    Thanks again. :D