Don't Let Errors Ruin Your Submission Pt 8: Getting Rid of Passive & Unnecessary Words


Welcome to the 8th and FINAL post of my Don't Let Errors Ruin Your Submission series!

You might think your manuscript's fascinating story potential should rise above any typos and poor grammar, but the truth is agents and publishers receive an onslaught of submissions. They give most of these submissions a few seconds before deciding whether to pass or keep reading. That means any red flags can prompt a rejection.

Poor grammar can be a red flag!

I say "can" because there will always be the exception to the rule. Counting on being the exception to the rule is NOT a good idea. You need to clean up your submission.

Don't let errors ruin your submission's chances!

This week, we're taking a look at Rules 10 & 11 which look at active voice and unnecessary words. I'm combining these two because when you use passive voice instead of active voice, you often have unnecessary words.

10. Use the active voice unless you specifically need to use the passive.

11. Omit unnecessary words.

Let's take a moment to define the terms:

  • Active voice: the subject does the action in the sentence
  • Passive voice: the object does the action in the sentence
  • Unnecessary words: extra words that don't add to the meaning of the sentence

Active Voice

Why Should You Use Active Voice?

If you’ve participated in a writing workshop with experienced writers, you’ve heard or received the following feedback about verbs:

  • make them active not passive
  • use stronger verbs

Unless someone’s told you the difference between active and passive voice, you’re probably stumped on how to fix this.

What Does Active Voice Look Like?

Active voice places the reader in the story’s action by using an active verb. With an active verb, the subject of the sentence performs the action. The easiest way to understand this is to look at an example. This paragraph appears in The Watchers at War, the third book of my epic fantasy trilogy:

Kassa slumped against the nearest chair. She yanked a cloth napkin from a tea tray. Fighting to stay alert, she tried to tie her arm off, using her good, but weaker, hand and her teeth. Accomplished as best she could manage, she fell into the chair, unable to move or leave her friend.

In each of these sentences, Kassa (she) is the subject of the sentence AND performs the verb. Active voice creates a more compelling experience for the reader. 

What Does Passive Voice Look Like?

In passive voice, the verb includes a helping verb (was, were, have, would, etc.) and the object of the verb performs the action. It’s indirect.

  • Penguins killed my sister. (active)
  • My sister was killed by penguins. (passive)

The passive voice lacks excitement and downplays the action.

Odds are you learned to write in passive voice in school. Remember essay assignments with a required number of words or pages? To lengthen your essay, you used passive verbs. (In the example above, the passive sentence has six words while the active one has four.) The educational approach to word counts backfired by teaching you to write boring sentences.

Imagine if you read sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, page after page of sentences using the passive verb. You would put the book or document down. It’s boring.

How Do You Remove Passive Verbs?

Examine the sentence to identify the noun performing the action. Remember, in a passive sentence, the action is performed by the object. To fix this, reverse the word order. The noun performing the action becomes the subject of the sentence.

In most cases, a reversal will work, but if it becomes awkward or complicated, don’t push it. It’s acceptable to have a small percentage of passive verbs in your writing.

Unnecessary Words

Any good writing critique will note repetitive or unnecessary words. Some common words to eliminate when possible are:

  • that
  • very
  • too
  • just
  • really
  • quite
  • now
Redundancies often add to your list of unnecessary words. Consider these sentences:
  • She nodded her head.
  • He waved his hand.
  • They blinked their eyes at me.
Don't they work just as well, and better, written this way?
  • She nodded.
  • He waved.
  • They blinked.
It takes practice to recognize redundancies, so you might want to try a read through of your work looking for examples.

Here's an example I've used for years in my business writing workshops:

I wanted to extend my most gracious and extensive thanks for the way that you successfully and without hesitation utilized my most humble suggestions.

That's a mouthful! How about this instead?

Thank you for using my suggestions.

Previous Posts

That's the end of this series based on the top 11 grammar rules. If you've missed any of the previous 7 posts, you can access them here:

Part 1: an overview of the top 11 grammar rules to follow

Part 2a look at compound sentences and punctuation

Part 3: an exploration of proper comma usage

Part 4: an overview of the proper use of apostrophes to indicate possessive nouns

Part 5: an explanation of dialogue punctuation

Part 6: a look at subject agreement with verbs, participial phrases, appositives, and pronouns

Part 7: an examination of how to punctuate and phrase lists in a sentence


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