Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Tips on Writing in Active Voice

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

Was. One of the banes of my existence! I love that word and use it all the time. As I write the first draft, my character is always “was thinking” or “was running” or “was excited”. 

Boring and passive, right? The character may be excited but the reader won’t be. 

So, after my first burst of creativity when the words flow from my fingertips, I hitch up my big girl panties and do a “search and destroy” (also known as “find and replace”) on my document and remove almost all of those cherished wases. And weres. And should bes.

It takes effort to do a really good edit on a manuscript, especially when we all love the words we write. I have to really concentrate to find a different and, usually, immensely better way to show what I want the reader to see. 

“Was” is only one piece of the passive voice puzzle, with several other items that make a huge difference in how we write:
  • Was/were
  • Instead of “was”, try using a strong verb to replace it
  • “She was running toward the door” vs. “She raced toward the door” 
  • "They were fighting the crowd" vs. "They fought the crowd"
Active verbs 
“He was angry” vs. “He slowly rose from his chair, his body rigid and teeth clenched. ‘Never say that to me again. Do you understand?’” Is there any doubt he’s angry? Of course, "rose" is the only strong verb with a lot of other description to build the image of "angry."

Power words 
Power words are different for different genres. In a mystery, the list might be: blood, knife, gun, scream. A romance might have: love, kiss, or caress. Power words help to build tension, create atmosphere and set the stage. Here's a couple of paragraphs of my ghost story set in New Orleans in 1815 (I've underlined the power words):

"They say you cast spells, old woman." 

A carriage rattled by, churning a pall of choking dust

The cloaked and hooded figure swiftly glanced at the street behind him. He withdrew further into the concealment of his disguise, the silk of his cravat rustling. "If not, I'll take my gold elsewhere." A suggestive shake of his fist made coins chink against each other, a heavy sound of greed and passion.

The old woman squatting in the doorway slowly looked up, pausing at the gloved hand still outthrust with its enticement, then continuing upwards to study the face partially hidden behind a feathered-and-bejeweled mask. She noted the richness of the material, the gleam of gemstones, the signs of "Quality" barely disguised behind the all-encompassing cloak. She smiled.

Not all of the words may seem like power words, or you may find additional ones but, ultimately, strong words help to set the stage for your reader. 

Object vs. subject placement 
When we put the subject of the sentence first, it sounds awkward to us English speakers. It's also passive. For instance, "the fence was the perch of the bird" as opposed to "the bird perched on the fence". See, it sounds strange. But you'd be surprised as to how many times a phrase like that comes across my desk. 

Distancing words
Whenever we use "she thought" or "he reasoned", we move our POV (point of view) character away from the reader with words that really don't matter. 

Did the house really have a ghost? vs. She wondered if the house really did have a ghost. 

She thought he took a step towards her vs. He took a step towards her.

Which is stronger? 

Some of these may seem subtle. Sometimes we NEED to use passive voice. But, sometimes, it just jerks our reader out of the story.

Do you like wases as much as I do? Give some examples!


Sarah (Sally) Hamer is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in a good story. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres—mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction—‚she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for almost twenty years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at WWW.MARGIELAWSON.COM. Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach at Touch Not the Cat Books, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors. 

You can find her at or WWW.SALLYHAMER.BLOGSPOT.COM

From Sally: I wish to express gratitude to the giants upon whose shoulders I stand and who taught me so much about the writing craft. I would list every one, if it were only possible.


  1. Sally,

    Thanks for this important article about writing in active voice. I spent ten years in linguisitic academics where almost everything was writing in passive voice. Academics is built the opposite of commercial--on passive voice. It's a hard habit for some people to break but a necessary skill for each of us to learn and practice.

    author of 10 Publishing Myths, Insights Every Author Needs to Succeed

    1. Terry, you're right -- commercial fiction is SO different from academics or even literary fiction. I think it even takes a different part of the brain to write them!

      But, as you say, it is doable. And "writing active" a good skill to have if you want to publish in today's world.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Sally, what a great blog! I learned so much already from you this morning - and it's only 8:15! Keep your blogs coming --- and hang in there, I'm still working on my memoir. Hopefully, we'll have a finished product soon.

    1. Diane, I'm so glad you're going to realize your dream! Looking forward to reading it.

      Thank you!

  3. Thank you, Sally. This post is so helpful. Writing in English is challenging.
    By the way, I love your examples.

    1. LOL! Writing in English is hard for English speakers. I think you're amazing!

      Always appreciate your comments.

  4. This is good, Sally! I never thought to search and replace the word was.

    1. Sometimes is exactly the right word, but most people overuse it. I know I sure do!


  5. This is so great, Sally, and applicable to all genres. Your wonderful examples make it very clear. Thanks!

    1. Thanks, Crystal. I try to give examples that can be used in almost every type of writing, even non-fiction and am glad they help you.