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Monday, April 27, 2015

Week 17 Prefer the Active Voice--but Know When to Use the Passive

Week 17
by Peggy Urry

Ready. Set. Action!

One of the first things I learned as a new writer was that active voice is preferable to passive. That's all good, but what is active voice? (I'm still working on bettering my understanding of this concept.)

Here are a few examples:

"Active: I let go of the Cessna's strut and prayed my chute would open. (The subject performs the action.)

Passive: The Cessna's strut was* let go of and a prayer that my chute would open was* said by me. (The subject receives the action.)"1

*To be verbs (like was, is, been, etc.) are a red flag for passive voice. 

Active: The boys played basketball in the gym.

Passive: Basketball was played in the gym.

The beautiful and frustrating part of language and writing is that there are uses for all types. There are certain situations where passive voice is preferred: for Emphasis, for Diplomacy, and for Flow.

Emphasis: Consider the example above. If we want to emphasize basketball, we would use the passive voice. If we want to emphasize boys, we would use active.

Diplomacy: Use passive voice to avoid assigning blame or identifying who performed the action.

Active: You left your water bottles and trash all over the gym floor. (accusatory tone)

Passive: Water bottles and trash were left all over the gym floor. (diplomatic tone)

Flow: "Use the passive voice to facilitate coherence by linking the thought of one sentence to the next.

Active: The wail of a loon awakened me. Anyone who has canoed the Boundary Waters wilderness of northern Minnesota has heard the haunting sound.

Passive: I was awakened by the wail of a loon. This haunting sound has been heard by anyone who has canoed the Boundary Waters wilderness of northern Minnesota."2

In the Active example, the references to the loon's sound come at the beginning and then the end of the sentences. In the passive, they are connected and it improves the flow.


In your WIP, do a word search for passive verbs. Do they emphasize the right thing, add diplomacy, or improve flow? 

There are a lot of resources if you want to further explore this topic:

An old post by Donna Hatch is still very helpful IMHO. 

Oxford Dictionaries online has more examples.

And one to clarify or confuse you even more is the English Page.

TAMARA: I was surprised to see that it is week 17 already. Or is this more active? Week 17 surprised me. Didn't 2015 begin not too long ago? Or more passively, didn't the start of the year 2015 happen like, just yesterday? I'm rereading this chapter because that passive voice creeps into my writing when I'm not paying attention. A lot like kids becoming passive lounging/eating bodies when if I'm not there to supervise!! And thanks for the great resources!

VALERIE: My favorite part of this lesson is that he says we should know when to use the passive voice. When you first start out in the writing world you hear 2 things: Show don't tell! and Use active voice! After you've been around the (writer's) block (haha!) for awhile (attended your share of critique groups and writing conferences, not to mention revised a manuscript or two) you know that passive voice has a purpose. You gave great examples, Peggy.

[And sometimes you just need to tell instead of show for the same reasons you talk about in your post...emphasis and flow. Just saying.]  

1. Mastering the Craft of Writing, Wilbers, pg 90.
2. Mastering the Craft of Writing, Wilbers, pg 91.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Week 16 Unstack Those Noun Stacks

Week 16
By Tamara Passey

Let's talk about stacks.
They work for pancakes, but not so much for nouns.
"A noun stack is a phrase made up of a series of nouns. When nouns are strung together, the effect is like stacking one on top of another; thus the name." 1

Now wait, not all noun stacks are bad. If it is a short stack like the phrase inflation index or   construction industry or literature review, it can be useful. But if you get carried away, thinking more is better, and stack your nouns too high, then watch out. You may overwhelm your reader (think carbohydrate-overload in pancake terms.)

Here's an example:
"The deadline for your manuscript corrections submission is September 1" Can you see or feel the awkwardness of that noun stack? It can be unstacked to read, "Please submit your corrected manuscript by September 1." Did you catch how Wilbers did that? Try replacing some of your nouns with verb forms and adjectives.

Another example:
"We used crop rotation to avoid soil degradation."
"We rotated our crops to avoid degrading our soil."

Now you give it a try:
Unstack the following noun stacks. . . substituting verbs for nouns where appropriate and adding prepositions, adjectives, and pronouns as needed.
a. We conducted a sentence structure review.
b. She published articles explaining how to do home inspections (or how to inspect homes.)
c. My five-month-old granddaughter Matilda loves doing leg and arm exercises. 2

If after trying these, go and have some reverse fun. Try writing an email, or scene with as many nouns stacked as possible. Don't go getting yourself in trouble, but play around to get the feel of how many nouns are too many.

And while you're doing that, I may need to cook some breakfast. I'll try to think of a noun for every pancake I eat!

1. p. 85 Mastering the Craft
2. p, 87 Mastering the Craft

Monday, April 13, 2015



Read the title of this post again.

Have you ever seen the word "verb" actually used as a verb? 

A verb is a noun!

Well, this is not your high school English class, kids. Strap yourselves in and hang on, we're about to verb us some nouns and it's going to be a fun ride.

Last week Peggy talked about the danger of wordiness (and guys hiding in trees) when writers turn their verbs into nouns [She made a recommendation... versus She recommended...], but when you switch and go the other way, the results can make for some strong writing.

We actually do it all the an example, Stephen Wilbers quotes Richard Nordquist's post at "In a single work day, we might head a task force, eye an opportunity, nose around for good ideas, mouth a greeting, elbow an opponent, strong-arm a colleague, shoulder the blame, stomach a loss, and finally hand in our resignation." (1)

These are all pretty commonplace examples, but it's when we get creative that the fun begins..."the roof...hinged open," "ducks winged through the island," "sailboats breezed along." (2)

I love this tip from Wilbers: "In each case the verb is made from a noun associated (or...loosely associated) with the object. These associated objects are a good place to look for nouns that might be verbed into action." (3)

So the walleye finned instead of swam, the tulips stemmed instead of get the idea. Look for them in your own writing. I bet you have some. And I also bet there are a lot of sentences that can be made stronger by using this fun technique.

(1) MTC, p. 80
(2) MTC, p. 80-81
(3) MTC, p. 83

And check out the new book in our line-up!!! 
Congratulations, Tamara on your new nonfiction release: 
Mothering Through the Whirlwind.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Week 14 Don't Nominalize, Verbalize

Don't Nominalize, Verbalize

Has your wordiness taken to adopting disguises? Or has it adopted a disguise?

Do you stand in agreement with me that this is one handsome dude? Or do you agree he is handsome?

You might not think these sentences are that different, and you're right. Sometimes, we attempt to give a more authoritative tone to our writing by changing verbs into nouns. (We should be doing the opposite, right?) Most of the time, our run-on diatribe ends up sounding like rubbish. 


We are making a recommendation that you undertake a lengthy study of this important issue.

We recommend that you study this issue.


He offered an explanation for why they had come to the conclusion they should raise an objection to making a change in the policy.

He explained why they had concluded they should object to changing the policy.1

Would you rather make a connection with your reader or connect with your reader? The noun form (connection) of the verb (connect) weighs down the sentence. 2

Verbs propel your thoughts economically, they drive the sentence. Be biased in favor of the verb. Keep your writing precise and clean so your reader isn't looking through the noun disguise for the beauty of your writing.

Revise the following:
a. Please take under consideration my proposal.
b. I made the decision to make a call to my dear old mum.
c. They came to an agreement they would reach a settlement out of court.
d. It is my suggestion that we make a proposal to make a refinement in the dephosphorization of taconite pellets.
e. She came to the realization that her only means to make an escape was to make a pretense of sleeping.

We are given to appreciation of followers who take to leaving comments. Oops, I mean, we appreciate your comments!

1. Mastering the Craft of Writing, Wilbers, pg 77

2. Mastering the Craft of Writing, Wilbers, pg 76

TAMARA: I decided to consider a perusal of the blog when I happened upon the picture you chose to post. I allowed myself to contemplate what could possibly be the topic of discussion with an eye-catching, camouflaged man. After reading your post I realized what had really happened.... The picture you posted caught my eye. I wondered what this week's topic was and continued reading. Well done!!

VALERIE: Yes, why is this boy in a tree? Something to do with wordiness... Anyway, we've had a bunch of posts (chapters in MTC) related to this topic. It all boils down to tightening manuscripts.
NEXT WEEK Verbing our nouns!!! Can't wait!