I see a lot of writers who need to learn the logistics of making sentences less passive. In this Behind the Rewrite, Liesel K Hill explains why limiting passive voice is important and how she approached line editing her fantasy novel Dragon Magic. Since Liesel is both a writing coach and an author, you’re in for an insightful lesson.
As a writing coach, one of the main problems I see is authors failing to edit passive voice out of their manuscripts. Most of us, especially after our first book or two, know what it is, but I don’t think enough emphasis is put on the importance of learning this skill.
If readers cannot connect deeply with your words, which passive voice keeps them from doing, you’ll never create megafans. One of my secret sauce editing techniques is what I call editing for crutch words. Crutch words are words used too often by you, the author. They’re also red flags for passive voice. So, if you edit out the crutch word, you also edit out ninety percent of passive voice.
Some of the crutch words I edit for are ‘was,’ ‘but,’ ‘had,’ and ‘that.’ There are plenty of others as well, but these are some of the biggest culprits for me personally.
I edit for these intentionally, not just reading through my manuscript and hoping I catch them, but actually using the Find feature in my writing software to look at each, individual case.
I’ve highlighted the crutch words and other issues in the passage below, which comes from my WIP, a medieval high fantasy novel.
“You cannot beat me!” He practically shrieked. He stalked forward and thrust his face toward Borilad’s. “You are merely a soldier! I am fierce! I am formidable! I have powers you cannot wield or even comprehend. I will kill you, General. You know I can do it. You know I will.”
Borilad noted that Malicroft did not even attempt to take the egg, thought it was within his grasp. The man knew better. Borilad had to give him credit for that, at least.
He merely nodded. “I know you have powers I do not possess. I know you are willing and capable of killing me. I’ve always believed you a formidable enemy, Malcroft.”
Leaning forward, Borilad peered into the man’s eyes. “But do not insult me by leaving me out of the equation. I’ve killed more men on battlefields than you’ve met in your entire life. I wield plenty of power, after my own fashion.”
Most of these words can be edited many ways, depending on how they’re used in the sentence. It generally boils down to the word being filler, meaning you can cut it without changing the meaning of the sentence. (And you should.) Or, it’s a vague word and you can come up with something much stronger and more specific. (Which again, you should.)
1. ‘Was’ is a lazy and vague word. Switch it out with something more specific. I chose the word ‘lay.”
2. That’ can often simply be edited out. Unless you’re using it for emphasis, which I did with my second instance, it can simply be cut.
3. ‘Had’ can often be cut without changing the sentence as well. In this case, this phrase is more a matter of far too many words to say the same thing. ‘had to give’ became ‘gave.’ I often see this with the word ‘could’ as well. Something like, ‘could hear’ can becomes simply, ‘heard.’ The past tense, single word is much tighter and stronger than its more progressive counterpart.
4. It also occurred to me that this is a medieval fantasy and “credit” is too contemporary a term. I changed the core word to ‘recognition’ and Borilad “recognized him for that, at least.”
5. There are many instances where ‘but’ must be kept in a sentence, especially if you’re making a comparison. BUT, I use it far too often, as many authors do. ;D Go through each instance, read the sentence, and if you can cut it, do. That’s what I did here. If you make too many comparison sentences, consider splitting them into two separate ones. For example, “He wanted to go to the store but couldn’t find his wallet” can become, “He wanted to go to the store. He couldn’t find his wallet.” Depending on your prose, that may sound clunky, so you’ll have to see if it works for each instance, but you’ll find that often this works to cut down on overuse of the word.