Don't Just Lay There

I received the best advice I ever got about sex during a late night drag up Douglas Avenue when I was in high school. A young man in his twenties told a car full of eager teenage girls, “When a man is making love to you, don’t just lay there.”

That suggestion to be an active participant has stood me in good stead in both my love life and my writing. Passive voice, using was, were or other forms of the verb to be, followed by a past participle (normally an –ed ending) is a habit a lot of writers follow.

I had years of writing experience under my belt when I sold the short story “A Time to Die” to The Magazine of Unbelievable Stories. The piece was too long. I had to cut 800 words from the story. To my abject and utter surprise, I discovered that I shortened the story by 400 words just by going through and removing passive voice writing.

The website for the University of Wisconsin states “At the heart of every good sentence is a strong, precise verb; the converse is true as well--at the core of most confusing, awkward, or wordy sentences lies a weak verb. Try to use the active voice whenever possible.”

In active voice the subject of the sentence does the action. In passive voice the subject of the sentence receives the action. An example is:

Active voice: The dog bit the man.
Passive voice: The man was bitten by the dog.

Check your writing for passive voice and use the following suggestions to change the sentence to active voice.

Look for a "by" phrase (e.g., "by the dog" in the last example above). If you find one, the sentence may be in the passive voice. Rewrite the sentence so that the subject buried in the "by" clause is closer to the beginning of the sentence.

If the subject of the sentence is somewhat anonymous, see if you can use a general term, such as "researchers," or "the study," or "experts in this field."

Strong active writing will catch the attention of an editor. It also reduces your word count for a more accurate word and page count. A word to the wise, use of the verb to be is not always undesirable. Neither is passive voice. However those topics are the subject of another blog.


Becky A said...

Oh Miss Jeannie,
I spent a few nights dragging Douglas myself but I must say, your words of wisdom beat any I ever heard!
Thanks for including an example in your writing. My mind still wants to glaze over when I hear words like verb or past participle so an example clears away the terror and gives my brain something else to focus on.
I do have one question for you though. Why is it that every time I decide I am done revising my book, I learn something new that I need to go back and check? Is it a conspiracy or what?????
I'm still laughing, sort of!

Jeannie said...

I think the writer's higher power uses those things we have to check to keep us humble. It sure worked on me! 400 words is not chump change. And I'd had instruction on passive voice from the indomitable Miss Penny! =:-)

Joan Vincent said...

A good explanation Jeannie, especially with the examples given. In my search for active verbs I learned to use a thesaurus. At first I found Roget's difficult but it is better than The Reader's Digest Word Finder I used heavily when I began writing.

Jan said...

Great reminders on how to tighten up your story. Thanks.

Jeannie said...

Oh smokes, Joan! How could I have forgotten to mention a thesaurus? Good thing you brought it up.

A green covered paperback Roget's thesaurus has been one of my standard writing tools for years. Of course now I'm lazy and use the thesaurus section of

Like you said, it's indispensible for looking for more active verbs. It's also great for when you find yourself stuck on a word and using it over and over.

A thesaurus is a definite must for a writer's bookshelf.

Rox Delaney said...

I've never liked my thesaurus. It was hard to use and didn't have enough synonyms to work with. I found one at B. Dalton that I LOVE. J.I. Rodale's The Synonym Finder. I'm on my 3rd copy of it. It's about 2 1/2 inches thick and has over 1 million synonyms. When I know there's a word I want to use but can't think of it, I find something similar and almost always end up with the word I wanted. I'll bring it to a meeting! has a thesaurus online, if you're in a rush and don't want to dig out a thesaurus. ;)

Rox Delaney said...

Ha ha, Jeannie! I didn't see your post that mentioned until I sent mine. I should read through all first, huh? LOL

Starla Kaye said...

I'm not one to just lay there, I'm an active participant...except sometimes when it comes to writing. When I go back and proofread my work, I realize what a love affair I evidently have with passive writing and particularly with the words "was" and "were." Alas, another affair must bite the dust. But I struggle to let it go....

Penny Rader said...

Great post, Jeannie! I have many fond memories of dragging Douglas. My first drafts are usually littered with passive voice, which I then work on to make them as active as I can. Rox, I've always wanted one of those Rodale Synonym Finder books. They're awesome.