To Be or Not To Be–with apologies to Hamlet

The first of a new series on prose fiction do’s and don’ts for new writers.

The passive verb, the state of being, that is, those words your grammar teacher taught you: am, is, are, was, were, have, has, had–and for this conversation, mostly “was“–should be shunned from your prose, often and with prejudice.

I could have picked many topics to start this series, but if I had to point to the first I.D. card of the amateur writer, it is the proliferation of the word “was” sprinkled all over a manuscript draft.

And I’m not judging. This was my major crime against literature when I started out, until my mentor pointed it out and eventually broke me of the habit (Hi, Debra Holland).

A few simple reasons, with examples:

1. The active tense just plain sounds better.  

I was running to the store. vs
I ran to the store.

2. Passive tense lacks needed specifics.

He was tall. He was average looking. vs
He stood head and shoulders above his peers, though not many of them bothered to notice.

3. Passive tense shields accountability–the reason your local providers love it so much in those special snailmail deliveries.

Your cable was disconnected last Tuesday. (by… someone–your neighbors, aliens, terrorists, even! We surely don’t know) vs the far more accurate and damning
We disconnected your cable last Tuesday.

If you find one of your manuscripts is littered with passive verbs, take the time to rewrite it. You’ll be shocked at how much the same story “pops” when you’re done.

A word of caution: you can go overboard with this line of thinking. In fact, for awhile, I tried to remove 100% of any state of being from my prose. The dubious good news. It can be done, but such a path will make you a bit twitchy at parties, so years ago I made my peace with the passive tense and let a few slip back in. Sometimes “I am done with this topic” says it all, and that’s okay.

If you are one of these passive verb offenders, don’t beat yourself up. The good news is that it’s not too late to begin the training.

R.J’s rule of thumb, if you see four or five passive verbs in a paragraph (and we all slip, even those who are years beyond knowing better) you need to rework those sentences. If you’re seeing two or three per page, that’s probably fine.