Cindy Hiday

Active & passive voice.

A basic technique for making your writing come alive is the use of active voice. In active voice, the subject of the sentence is doing something. In passive voice, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. "The vote was passed by the board of directors" is passive and sounds like the vote is the subject of the sentence. Whereas, "The board of directors passed the vote" is active. The board of directors is the true subject of the sentence.

Passive mode is easy to spot. Words like "had been," "was," and "were," sometimes coupled with verbs ending in "ing," are giveaways. Change "When she was passing the church, the clock in the tower was chiming" to "When she passed the church, the clock in the tower chimed."

These kinds of changes not only make your writing more active, they unclutter your sentences. Starting a sentence with the active subject sometimes eliminates filler words like there and it. "There were four beautiful models waiting outside Tim's office" is a cluttered way of saying "Four beautiful models waited outside Tim's office."

You've heard the saying "show, don't tell"? Active voice shows. "The movie was funny" is passive and tells the reader how he should feel. "The audience's laughter filled the theater and rose to a crescendo with the closing credits" is active and lets the reader experience the humor first hand. Rather than passively looking on, your reader sees, hears, feels, smells and tastes through your characters.

Stating facts is not the same as telling. Telling states what conclusions the reader should come to as a result of the facts. Facts are just facts. "It snowed for three weeks" is stating a fact. "The weather was cold" is telling the reader how to feel about that fact.

Telling makes a book read more like a synopsis than a story. Your reader walks away feeling like he's just been given a description of what's supposed to have happened. For this same reason, telling does have its place. If an event doesn't warrant its own scene, but it's information that needs to be known in order to make the transition from one scene to another logical, then tell and be done with it.

For more examples of active versus passive voice, read The Elements of Style by William Strunk & E.B. White: "The habitual use of active voice...makes for forcible writing."

More recommended titles on the subject:

On Writing by Stephen King

Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin

Don't tell me she was beautiful, prove it!