Q and A: Passive Voice

I recently had a question on Facebook about passive voice, and Heather let me answer the question on my blog. Thanks Heather!

Mrs. Tang, can you recommend resources for overcoming passive voice. PV keeps sneaking it's way into my story! I didn't see a entry about PV on your Story Sensei blog. Any advice?

Camy: When a writer mentions “passive voice,” there are actually two different things they could mean. (Or sometimes, they mean both!)

1) passive sentences, meaning sentences with passive verbs instead of active verbs


2) a passive writer’s voice, meaning the writing itself is rather stale rather than active and vibrant


Passive verbs like “was” and “were” are small and almost unnoticeable, but they tend to distance the reader from the story. By replacing passive verbs with strong action verbs, you can improve the prose dramatically.

For passive sentences, I have a quick and dirty solution that I use all the time.

First, I write the manuscript and don’t worry about passive verbs. I just write them and let them go. I want to just finish the manuscript and not worry about all the endless passive verbs I’ve used.

Then, I will do a “Find” in my word processing program (I use Mac Pages, but many of you probably use Microsoft Word, or Scrivener, or OpenOffice). I will Find “was” and “were” in my manuscript and revise each sentence with more active verbs.

Obviously, there will be places you can’t replace the passive verb, and that’s expected. There’s actually nothing wrong with the verb “was” (or “to be” in any form). It’s not passive in itself (example: She was his sister), but when you combine it with another verb (example: she was walking, she was feeling, she was hoping) it weakens the sentence. If you can replace as many passive verbs as you can find with stronger verbs, the overall vividness of your manuscript will skyrocket.


If your feel like your writing voice itself isn’t vibrant, then a book I can recommend is Finding Your Writer’s Voice by Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall. Just to warn you, not all the exercises resonated with me, but there were several that really challenged me to develop my writer’s voice and helped me to really refine and bring it out. (Disclaimer: if you use the link above to buy the book on Amazon, I get a small kickback since I belong to Amazon Associates.)

Heather, I hope this answered your question! If it didn’t, let me know in the comments and I’ll refine my answer.


  1. Howdy Mrs. Tang, You advice totally rocks. Though the quick and dirty solution of just doing it-getting the story on paper and then worrying about passive voice-is easier said than done for me. BUT with your FIND AND REPLACE solution (which was also suggested to me by Darlene Franklin), I think I can take a deep breath a just do it-most of the time. :-)

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  3. Thanks Camy. Very helpful! This has come up a lot lately.

    I shall pass it on.

    Was and were.

    I need to come back here more often, and look at your side bar!

  4. Heather, nice to know other authors do the same thing! Yes, it's hard to just get it down but I've found that if you use an Alphasmart or if you deliberately try to close your eyes and type (if you can type by touch), it makes it easier to just get that bad rough draft down. You get into full right brain mode, which allows you to write faster and more efficiently and more creatively, too, when you're not trying to self-edit at the same time.

    Jacqueline, thanks! I'm glad that was helpful for you!


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