Avoid Passive Sentences for More Engaging Stories
If you’re a serious novelist, then you’ve likely heard the maxim, “Write active sentences and avoid the passive.” It’s a popular recommendation from editors for one simple reason: It’s true.
Let’s take a look at a few examples of passive sentences:
The dolphins were watched by the kids in the stands.
The house was painted and let to dry by the newlyweds.
The ball was hit by Joe into left field in his last at-bat.
From a grammatical standpoint, these sentences are okay. Yet from a reader’s standpoint, they’re, well … weak. When it comes to crafting stories, weaker sentences equate to less engaging writing, and that means disengaged readers who will be more apt to put a novel down if they run into enough snags like these.
To see the weakness of each of the examples above, now take a look at the sentences revised in the active voice:
Avoid This Subtle Way of Telling Instead of Showing
If you’ve read even a little about the craft of writing fiction, or had an editor like me review your story, then you’ve no doubt had someone tell you, “Get rid of those adverbs! They only weaken your story!” But we all learned how to use adverbs in grammar class at some level, right?
So are they really that evil?
Short answer: Yes.
Adverbs—technically “manner adverbs” as we’re discussing them here—tell how someone acts or speaks, usually –ly words like “deftly” and “powerfully.” For example, “Jim deftly sidestepped the linebacker and ran for a touchdown” or “The speaker powerfully made his point known.”
Get Your Story Written, Then Think Revision
Not long ago, I was helping our youngest daughter with a writing assignment about medieval knights, and she told me she couldn’t think of an adjective to modify a certain noun. She offered a few ideas and then just sat there, stuck. I could only say to her what I encourage novelists with: “Just write what comes to mind and get it down on paper. You can always go back and revise it when you are done.”
So I figured I’d run with that notion and offer a few thoughts to those of you who are working on novels, but finding yourselves constantly wanting to self-edit during the writing process. On the whole, most novelists will tell you that self-editing during composition is a self-defeating endeavor that eventually brings writers to a halting screech—and often sends them in the direction of the kitchen for their favorite comfort food.
Why should you just write your story from start to finish without worrying about fixing this, that, and the other? Mainly, it’s because you want the passion and inspiration for your story to find its way out of your heart and imagination and onto the written page with little to no interruption of your creative flow. The STORY is the key; it’s why you’re dedicating a certain amount of your time and energy each day (hopefully) to an endeavor that might seem pointless to others who don’t hear the muse that writers do.
Typos Can Tip the Scales
So far in this series, we’ve taken a look at the dangers of head-hopping and too much telling. In this final installment, I want to cover the third most common issue I see with manuscripts. So, as before, let’s start by reviewing a short passage:
Dana pulled out her pinck lipstick and smeered on a new coat. She eyed herslf in the miror and and smiled, then dabblered on some more red lipstick. Joe would like the way she now looked now for shore.
Leaving the lady’s room, Danielle found Joe sitting on a stoool at the bar.. He gave her a nodded and a smile, then kissed her;
“Pink kipstick,” he wispered. “My favrit.”
“I know,” Dana sad.
José puled out a char at the table where he Sat by the jukbox.
Pretty obvious on this one, I think, yes? The passage is rife with errors, and as a novelist myself, I know very well that everyone makes mistakes, big and little (which is why I have an editor to review my own writing). However, a manuscript with errors is a sign to agents, publishers, and readers that you don’t take your work seriously enough.
Misspellings, punctuation problems, grammar goofs, inconsistencies, continuity issues … I could go on and on, but the bottom line is that to err is human, but to get edited is divine (hopefully). So what can you do to make sure your manuscript is as clean as can be before you self-publish it to a book-reading world that has better things to do than read stories with errors that leave your readers scratching their heads? Or before you send it off to some industry professional who already has six gazillion submissions to review on his or her slush pile, and who doesn’t have time for proposals or manuscripts with typos and such? Here are a few ideas for you to consider: