What I’ve Learned: The Curse of Was (or How to Hunt Down Passive Sentences)

What I've Learned, Writing

When I first started writing with an eye for publication, I hadn't taken any writing courses, no fiction classes, nothing. I was really flying by the seat. I started out submitting mainly to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, then also to Cemetery Dance and other short story markets. I always got rejected, but I often got little notes that really boiled down to, "I liked the idea, but it just didn't grab me."

I remember thinking, "How do I do that? Tell me how to grab you!"

Looking back at those old stories *cringe* I recognize why the writing wasn't doing any groping. Most of my sentences were passive. Certainly, that wasn't the only error, but it accounts for the sagginess of the prose.
Now, when I'm revising manuscripts (especially the old ones), the first thing I do is track down errant "to be" verbs. Here's how I do it (in MS Word):

  • Edit -> Find
  • Checkmark the "Highlight All Items Found In: Main Document"
  • Type the word "was" in the search field
  • Click the "Find All" button
  • Once the words are found and selected, go to the Highlighter function button and highlight the words an obnoxiously bright color

Then I do the same thing for: were, be, being, been, wasn't, weren't, and any other passive verbs I can think of. Once they're all highlighted that garish pink, purple or yellow color, I go through the document highlight by highlight and see whether the sentences affected can be improved and made more active.
Usually it's pretty easy. It's just a matter of dropping the "to be" verb and changing the -ing verb to an -ed verb.

For example:
Selina was careening through the underbrush.
Selina careened through the underbrush.

The active verb makes the sentence immediate and engaging. And that's what grabs your reader.
String together a slew of active sentences and you have a riveting paragraph. Make your paragraphs strong and active and you've got yourself a much more publishable piece!

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  • Reply
    February 12, 2008 at 7:02 pm

    Thanks for this tip!

  • Reply
    July 21, 2008 at 10:07 am

    Perhaps I’m nitpicking, but “Selina was careening through the underbrush” is not passive, it is progressive.

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