Passive voice is to be avoided

Writing teachers, editors and agents all rant about not writing in the passive voice. Here’s the down and dirty about passive voice. What is it? How do you identify it, and when it’s OK to use it.

What is passive voice?

confused readerHere are two sentences, which one is using the passive voice?

Jon loves Lisa.

Lisa is loved by Jon.

The second sentence uses passive voice. The object of the sentence – Lisa, is not doing the action in the sentence – loving. In passive voice, the object of the action gets placed where the subject should be. This is not grammatically incorrect. Subject + verb = sentence. Passive voice is a stylistic choice.

The problem with passive voice in your writing is that it can obscure who is doing the action, why the subject is doing the action, and how.Writing in active voice removes ambiguity and helps readers connect with your characters.

Recognizing Passive Voice

There’s this misconception that all instances of the verbs ‘to have’ and ‘to be’ are passive voice. This isn’t true. These verbs can perform valid functions within an active sentence. However, one easy way to recognize passive voice is to scan your work for ‘to be’ + a verb with an ‘ed’ ending.

Jon is loving the new car – active voice. The subject is doing the action.

The new car is loved by Jon – passive voice. The subject isn’t taking any action.

Passive voice often increases your word count, it’s vague, and it can be awkward.

Passive voice can be vague.

Lisa is loved. Passive voice. Who loves Lisa? Why should the reader care? Don’t know.

Passive voice is useful when it’s important to obscure the doer of the action to change the emphasis, or if the reader won’t care who’s doing the action. Politicians are famous for using passive voice to be vague. “Mistakes were made.” This statement by Ronald Reagan is grammatically correct, but tells the reader very little.

The declaration of independence was signed in 1776. Passive voice, but I wanted to emphasize the signing. The declaration of independence was signed by Thomas Jefferson. This is also grammatically correct, but not the point I was trying to make.


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

6 Steps for Your Final Edit

how to edit a novelLast week, Lisa covered the big picture edit to take your manuscript from first draft to second draft. But now you’re ready for the final pass before you send your novel off to an agent, editor, or publisher. Here are the seven steps you need to take to make sure your story is ready to go.

(1) Look at Every Scene and Ask, “Did I Wimp Out?”

The scene might be structurally fine, it works, but your instincts tell you that something is off. You copped out when writing it. You know this scene could be better if you wrote it differently, but that different, better way involves a lot more work.

A “wimp out” scene can happen during the first draft when we’re focused on making our word goals or we’re tired or we’ve lost sight of the overall flow of the plot.

Don’t be fooled into thinking a scene isn’t a “wimp out” scene because it has conflict either. It might very well have conflict, but it doesn’t have enough conflict or it doesn’t have the most effective conflict.

In our novel, we have a scene where Zerynthia, our main female character, goes to the temple to worship, only to discover that the altar to the deity she’d worshipped her whole life had been replaced by a shrine to another goddess. It worked as a scene, but on second read-through, Lisa and I agreed it was fluffy. I rewrote it to show not only the emotional effect on Zerynthia, but also the dark, disturbing aspects of this new goddess and her worshippers.

(2) Check for POV Mistakes

POV mistakes sneak in when we’re trying to convey information. If your character doesn’t see it, think it, feel it, taste it, touch it, or smell it, you can’t describe it. (For more on POV, check out our posts Problems with Point of View and 5 Tips for Writing Deep POV.)

In the first draft of chapter 2, we wrote about Zerynthia, “She pushed against the familiar binding constricting her breasts, her hair in a warrior’s tail down her back.”

But why would Zerynthia be thinking about her hair in a warrior’s tail down her back? We’d meant it as her doing a check list, but it wasn’t coming across that way to readers.

We changed it to “She pushed against the familiar binding constricting her breasts, and tightened the tie fastening her hair in a warrior’s tail down her back.” A small change, but it erased the POV violation.

A second aspect of POV is to consider the speech patterns and word choices of each character. Would he use that word? Would he say it that way? Our characters are not us, and we need to be careful to be true to their voice when we’re in their POV.

For example, if a character speaks in short choppy sentences, a scene written in their POV shouldn’t have long, flowing sentences that pile phrase upon phrase. Scenes in their POV don’t need to replicate exactly the character’s speech patterns, but there does need to be a sense of consistency.

(3) First Lines and Last Lines

I’m sure you know the first line of your novel needs to grab your reader and pull them in. But each chapter needs to do the same thing to a smaller degree.

In her post this Monday, Kristen Lamb wrote “Never leave a place to put a bookmark.” The end of a chapter is the logical place for someone to set your book aside until later. Use your last line and first line to push them over that potential rut so they can’t slide in a bookmark.

Copy and paste all the first and last lines in your novel into a Word document and look at them isolated from the context. Would they make it so that you couldn’t put the book down?

(4) Eliminate Weasel Words

Weasel words are slimy and slippery and lack all value. If you can cut a word from a sentence and the meaning doesn’t change, get rid of it. (Word’s “Find” feature works great for this.)

  • that
  • really
  • great
  • just
  • a lot
  • interesting
  • wonderful
  • very
  • sure
  • often
  • usually
  • many
  • most

(5) Kill the Clichés provides a listing of 2100 cliches, euphemisms, and figures of speech you need to murder. Unless you’re using them in a character’s speech as a way to define that character, find a fresher way to say it.

(6) White Space

Zoom out to about 50% (so that you can see two pages at a time) and scroll through your book looking for big blocks of text or areas where there’s too much white space.

Big blocks of text are a hint at slow spots, and too much white space in a row indicates you might be skimping on the description/setting or internal dialogue.

Fiction is about balance. If your novel runs at a harried pace the entire time, eventually your reader will feel the same as if they’re listening to a speech where the speaker is shouting the whole time. That’s no more effective than a speaker who’s always talking in a monotone. Vary your pace to keep them interested.

What last minute check do you just have to make before you send your “baby” off into the world?


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Homonym Hell

Choosing the wrong word will at best make readers laugh, at worst make you look illiterate. Shake a fist at the etymological powers that be if it makes you feel better, but here are some tricky homonyms we see and hear misused often.

road signs with conflicting messages“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Mark Twain

Homonyms: words that sound the same but have different meanings, origins or spellings. Not all of these are homonyms, but people mix them up as though they are. Here’s a quick test of your homonym prowess. Fill in the blank with the appropriate word from the brackets.

(illusion, allusion)

The movie Gnomeo and Juliet was an obvious ______ to Shakespeare.

(stationary, stationery)

All the ________ is missing from my desk.

(cite, site)

You must ______ your sources.

(sense, scents)

Too many ______ in one room make me sneeze.

(then, than)

I like sweets better ______ ice cream.

(insure, assure, ensure)

______ the baby doesn’t fall down the stairs.

How did you do? Find out below.

allusion – illusion
Illusion: something that misleads, points to a reality that doesn’t exist.
David Copperfield uses illusions to perform many of his tricks.

Allusion: a passing or casual reference to something else.
The allusion to Shakespeare in Gnomeo and Juliet was obvious.

accept – except
Accept: to agree to or receive something.
I accept your apology.

Except: often paired with ‘that’ and used in place of otherwise, but, and only.
I would hire her except that she lies.

I would accept that excuse for missing work, except that I saw you at the baseball game on TV.

elicit – illicit
Illicit: forbidden or against the law.
Cocaine is an illicit drug.

Elicit: to draw out or evoke.
The baby’s smile elicited grins from all the adults

further – farther
Further: a superlative to farther, a more distant point.
That horse ran further than ever before.

Farther: at a great distance.
Grandma’s house is farther down the road.

loose – lose
Loose: (verb) to set free or release; (adverb) not tied or fixed in place.
My son has a loose tooth.
Loose the hounds!

Lose: to misplace; cease to retain, have or gain.
I hate to lose at checkers.
Did you lose your keys?

Pick up the loose change in the cushions before you lose it all.

ensure – insure – assure
Ensure: to secure or guarantee.
Please ensure your seat belt is fastened.

Insure: to arrange for compensation in the event of damage, injury or loss.
In Canada, insuring your vehicle is mandatory.

Assure: to dispel any doubts.
I assure you, it’s a bad idea to stick objects up your nose.

To ensure that people insure their vehicles, be assured that police will ask to see your license, ownership, and insurance.

than – then
Than: used as a comparative.
My dress is prettier than yours.

Then: Denotes time – immediately or soon after.
I did the laundry, washed the dishes, and then went to bed.

tact – tack
Tact: knowing what to say or do to avoid giving offense.
Streaking across the gym lacked tact.

Tack: a pin with a flat head; also a sailing term, and an equestrian term referring to riding equipment; see dictionary for others.
I dropped a tack on the floor, be careful.
The saddle goes in the tack room.

sense – scents
Sense: hearing, seeing, taste, touch, smell – a method of perceiving stimuli; a perception or  feeling.
It’s said that other senses are improved when one is damaged or impaired.
I sense that you’re angry with me.

Scents: a distinctive odour or smell.
Strong scents make me sneeze.

cite – site
Cite: to quote something or someone, especially an authority.
You must cite all sources in your article.

Site: a position or location of a town, building, etc.
The proposed site for the new court house requires the demolition of the bus terminal.

stationary – stationery
Stationary: to be still or in one place.
A stationary house is a stable one.

Stationery: materials used to write notes, letters, etc.
Business Depot is a great place to buy stationery.

Break – to separate or cause to separate
Don’t play baseball in the front yard, you could break a window.

Brake – a device for stopping a moving vehicle, usually by friction; something that stops or slows action
Air brakes make a lot of noise.

Check out Marcy’s post on the 6 Grammar Mistakes That Will Cost You Readers.

What are some of your favorite homonyms?

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Forget What Your English Teacher Told You

Old school grammarians cringe and shake their heads when they read contemporary writing fraught with contractions, sentence fragments, and sentences started with conjunctions. Here’s a new mantra for those still writing old school: Know the rules – then break them.

chalk and chalkboardI had the best English teacher ever in high school. He taught me to love literature (especially Shakespeare), and to write well. I came to hate grammar lessons because Mr. Borek was absolutely inflexible and insisted that we learn (in my opinion) obscure grammar and parts of speech. It was torture and I still struggle with it. Mr. Borek had a lot of ‘rules’ but he always said:  “Know the rules and then break them.” If you’re breaking a rule on purpose for a reason (not because you can’t be bothered to edit) then do it. I think I heard a collective gasp from the grammarian peanut gallery. Hang on!

Here are some English rules that are OK to break, and some you must break.

Sentence Fragments
A sentence consists of a subject and a verb. Full sentences are still very necessary, but sentence fragments are OK in certain circumstances. You can’t write an entire manuscript with sentence fragments, who would read that? But a well-placed sentence fragment can convey extra meaning to readers. This holds especially true when writing dialogue, either spoken or internal. Sentence fragments help with pacing and tension by making things feel as though they are happening faster. “Quick. He’s coming.”

Run-On Sentences
If there was one grammatical error I committed in school more than any other it was run-on sentences. I use run-on sentences as much as sentence fragments, but I do it for a reason. Just like sentence fragments can quicken the pace of a scene and create tension, run-on sentences do the opposite. As with sentence fragments, run-on sentences have power only if they’re used sparingly with a purpose.

A contraction is two words pushed together with an apostrophe signifying where the missing letters should be. Unless you’re choosing to not use contractions for a reason, you’re writing a historical for example or maybe a scientific paper, the use of contractions is more than acceptable – it’s expected. However, please PLEASE use them correctly. Could of, would of, should of, are all incorrect. I’ve (I have), would’ve (would have), don’t (do not) are all proper contractions. See Marcy’s post on common grammar mistakes.

Exclamation points, colons, and dashes
When I started editing marketing materials, this is how the conversation would go:
Lisa: “That exclamation point is incorrect.”
Lisa’s Boss: “Yeah, so?”
Lisa: “OK, but five is excessive.”
Lisa’s Boss: <sigh> “Fine, only use one.”

When writing promotional material and marketing copy, inappropriate and even flagrant misuse of exclamations points, dashes, and other points of punctuation are acceptable. Marketers want to draw readers’ attention to specific lines of copy – the action sentences: do this, buy that, click here. They underline and bold text for the same purposes. They’re breaking the rules on purpose. Just remember that even though the rules are broken in marketing copy, these grammar rules are hard and fast almost everywhere else.

Whom sounds old-fashioned doesn’t it? This word has fallen out of favour. Even in circumstances where whom is grammatically correct, no one uses it anymore. I’ve had editors change this word in copy edits – not many places still use this formal style of writing.

But we were taught that sentences do not begin with a conjunction. The rules around ‘and’ and ‘but’ especially have loosened considerably, and you’ll find sentences begin with conjunctions almost everywhere. In fiction, writers are looking for authenticity in dialogue and with the popularity of deep POV it’s become very important for characters to sound real. Do you use proper English in every conversation you’re having with yourself or other people? This is completely acceptable – but like all the other rules know that you’re breaking the rule, and why. Ignorance is not an excuse.

What rules were you taught that you find broken by writers and authors?


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

6 Grammar Mistakes That Will Cost You Readers

Make these mistakes in a query letter, and your work might never see print publication. Make these mistakes in a blog often enough, and your readers will find another similar blog that doesn’t make them cringe.

Mistake #1: Your/You’re

Grammar mistakesThis mistake is why I can only take Facebook in small doses.

Add to this list it’s/its.
Please also add their/there/they’re.

This is a ridiculously simple mistake to avoid. Just stop and ask whether your sentence requires a possessive or a contraction.

Your is possessive, implying ownership: “I love your blog.”
You’re is a contraction of you are. The apostrophe indicates that you’ve (you have) smashed two words together to make them shorter and smoother to say: “You’re giving me a headache with all this grammar talk.”

Their = possessive
There = a place (“I’ve been there”) or a pronoun (“There is no way I’m jumping off that cliff.”)
They’re = they are

It’s = it is (or it has)
Its = possessive

Mistake #2: Leaving Out a Serial Comma

A serial comma involves placing a comma after every item in a series: “I love eating jelly beans, chocolate, and cranberries.”

You could write this without the serial comma: “I love eating jelly beans, chocolate and cranberries.”

Serial commas aren’t mandatory, but they are recommended by most major style guides for a very simple reason—they eliminate the risk of being unintentionally funny.

“A housewife’s job involves more than cleaning, cooking and birthing babies.”
Is it just me, or does that sound like she’s serving up roast baby for dinner?

But add a serial comma and we have “A housewife’s job involves more than cleaning, cooking, and birthing babies.” Now we have a clear tribute to mothers rather than cannibalism.

The only thing worse than being boring is being unintentionally funny. Once people laugh at you, that’s all they’re going to remember about your post. At least if you’re boring, they forget about you.

I live by the better safe than sorry rule. If I always use a serial comma, I never run the risk of leaving it out when I should have put it in.

Mistake #3: Could of, Should of, Would of

“I could of finished that 10 oz. steak if I wanted to, but I’m watching my waistline.”

This mistake crops up when people write the same way they speak. When we speak, we often slur could’ve (the contraction of could have) so that it sounds like could of.

Of can be used correctly in many different ways. This isn’t one of them. You might be able to get away with it in speech, but not in your writing.

Mistake #4: To/Too/Two

I know. This one just seems like the first English speakers were being mean. Not only do these all sound the same, but they’re only one letter different from each other.

Two is a number: “If you already have one chocolate bar and I give you mine, then you have two chocolate bars and I’m going to be asking you to share.” Hold up two fingers. They form half a W. To and too don’t have that shape in them. They are not numbers. If that doesn’t work for you, remember that two (as a number) starts the same way as twins.

Too is an adverb expressing the idea of “excessively,” “also,” or “as well”: “This word has one too many o‘s in it.”

To is a preposition. It’s used to begin a prepositional phrase or an infinitive. The best way to remember to is to place it where neither two nor too will work.

“I went to church on Sunday.” (preposition)

“I want to eat your chocolate.” (infinitive)

Mistake #5: Lack of Parallelism in Lists

Parallelism in a list makes your sentences easier for your reader to understand.

“To contribute to Easter dinner, I peeled two potatoes, three yams, and baked a pie.”

Your reader will understand this sentence, but it will feel awkward. And grammar Nazis will snicker at you behind their hands.

Take the sentence apart, and you’ll see the problem.

To contribute to Easter dinner, I . . .

  • peeled two potatoes
  • three yams
  • baked a pie.

You wouldn’t say, “To contribute to Easter dinner, I two yams.” At least I hope you wouldn’t. You need to add a verb in front of “three yams” to make this sentence parallel. “Peeled,” “washed,” “chopped,” or “mashed” would all be correct.

Mistake #6: Dangling Participles

A dangling participle is a word or phrase that’s placed so that it modifies the wrong thing. This is another one where your readers will find you extremely funny for all the wrong reasons.

“Walking down the road, the house came into view.”
A house taking a walk? I’d buy tickets to see that.

“Featuring an ensuite hot tub and extra fluffy pillows, we highly recommend this hotel for honeymooning couples.”
The mental image of people with hot tubs where their bellies should be and pillows for arms . . . I probably won’t stop laughing long enough to read the rest of what you’ve written.

“After rotting in the back of the fridge for three months, my husband cleaned out his forgotten leftovers.”
Based on this sentence, I need to take my husband to a doctor to find out why he’s rotting.

Check out our Resources for Writers page for three entertaining, readable grammar guides we recommend. For more grammar tips from Girls With Pens, check out the post Homonym Hell on commonly misused words.

What are some grammar gaffes that drive you nuts?


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.