Tag Archives: Editing

Replacing The Passive

Weight_lifterBecause active voice is stronger than passive, writing instructors generally encourage authors to avoid the latter. By way of review,

Passive voice is a grammatical term identifying a particular subject/verb relationship—a specialized one that runs counter to the usual active voice.

Typically, the subject of a sentence is the agent that does the action of a sentence. In the examples below, the subject of each of these simple sentences is the agent doing the action.

  • The writer cleaned off her desk. [Who cleaned? writer]
  • The editor marked the final page of the manuscript. [Who marked? editor.]
  • The publisher congratulated the team on a job well-done. [Who congratulated? publisher.

In sentences utilizing the passive voice, however, the subject is actually the recipient of the action. Again, examples may be helpful.

  • The book was published by WaterBrook. [The subject book is the object of the action was published rather
    than the agent doing the action.]
  • The email was sent from her phone. [The subject email is the object of the action was sent rather than the agent doing the action.]
  • Another writer was added to the group without advance warning. [The subject writer is the object of the action was added rather than the agent doing the action.]

(from “Clarifying What’s Passive”).

Understanding the passive construction is a good start, but writers also need to know how to revise those sentences and replace the passive verbs with active ones instead.

Writers utilize the passive construction for primarily three reasons: (1) they don’t know who the active agent is, (2) they want to emphasize the object, or (3) they don’t want to point fingers.

Consequently an author might write sentences like these:

The article was shared on both Facebook and Twitter. [The active agent is unknown.]

No one could verify if the film was seen by as many viewers as the theater reported. [The clause if the film was seem by as many viewers emphasizes the subject of that clause, film.]

The car was towed to a nearby garage. [The writer chooses not to point out what agent did the action.]

The key to constructing a sentence in the active voice is to make the subject of the sentence the active agent. The first step is to restructure the sentence so that the subject receiving the action (in the examples above, the subjects in question are article, film, and car respectively) becomes the object of the active verb.

To create the active verb, the writer must remove the form of the be helping verb (was in each of the examples above; other possibilities include were, is, are, been, and being) and any other accompanying helping verbs (such as have or had), then choose the appropriate tense of the action verb.

Finally, the writer must insert a new subject. Often times the agent in a passive sentence shows up as part of a prepositional phrase, usually introduced with by. Those sentences are the easiest to replace: . . . by my neighbors yields the subject neighbors; . . . by the publisher yields the subject publisher.

Putting the three steps together, the passive sentence The tree limbs were broken by the wind becomes the active sentence The wind broke the tree limbs.

The harder kinds of sentences to correct are those which do not name the agent at all. Sometimes context will yield the agent and sometimes an indefinite pronoun can do the job. The examples above which do not have agents might become one of the following:

    * Any number of blog visitors shared the article on both Facebook and Twitter. [Subject determined by a context clue.]
    * Many shared the article on both Facebook and Twitter. [Indefinite pronoun used as the subject.]
    * The company associated with AAA towed the car to a nearby garage. [Subject determined by a context clue.]
    * Somebody towed the car to a nearby garage. [Indefinite pronoun used as the subject.]

If there is no context clue and an indefinite pronoun won’t work as the subject, or if the writer’s intent is to feature the receiver of the action, he may need an entirely different sentence structure, perhaps incorporating the information contained in the passive sentence with another sentence, perhaps adding details, or perhaps reordering the sentence and choosing a different verb:

    * After being towed to the nearest garage, the car sat unattended for three days. [Incorporated with another sentence.]
    * Both Facebook and Twitter became the perfect platform to share the article. [Detail added.]
    * The article received considerable attention on both Facebook and Twitter. [Reworded to maintain article as the subject since the writer wished to feature it.]

Unfortunately “the Passive Police” have mistakenly accused a few other sentence constructions of being passive, but they are innocent and therefore writers and/or editors do not need to replace them. For help determining which sentences are not passive despite the accusations, see “Clarifying What’s Passive”. 😉

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How Important Are Details?

Are details important?

In more than one article critiquing the 2013 Mark Burnett/Roma Downey TV mini-series The Bible, reviewers pointed out “picky” details—Adam portrayed as a European-ish white guy, not an African or a Middle Easterner. And beardless. More than once I read remarks about the angels outfitted much like Ninja warriors.

My first thought was, Come on, people, quit being so picky.

But hold on.

Aren’t the picky things noticeable when they pull readers (or viewers) out of the story? Some time ago I read a post by agent Steve Laube about inconsistencies in novels that editors don’t catch but readers do. It reminded me of a book I read in which basketball details were wrong.

For example, Team A faced off against Team B in the NBA finals, with Team B hosting game 1. Some pages later the series is 3-2 and game 6 is being played at Team A’s home court.

But hold on. Fans of pro basketball would know that at that time the NBA finals were a 2-3-2 format—games 1,2,6 (if necessary), and 7 (if necessary) were to be played at the home of the team with the best over all regular season record. Games 3, 4, and 5 (if necessary) were played at the home of the two-seed. So no way could game 6 be played on Team B’s home court if game 1 was at Team A’s.

There was a similar stumble earlier connected with basketball (in the NBA, only one free throw when a technical foul is called) and another one with the weather in Southern California (a week of rain in May? Right! Doesn’t happen!) And another one on a cross-country drive. Three days, the character determines. It will take three days to reach her destination. She starts out on a Sunday and arrives … on a Sunday. O-o-kay.

But here’s the thing. If I were writing a review of this book, I would feel like I was being overly critical to point out these slips. I mean, did any of those matter in the long run? No. Will people who are not basketball fans, or residents of SoCal, even notice? Probably not. Does the day of the week really matter? Not really. Then what’s the big deal?

Do the details in fiction matter?

Actually, yes, they do. The details give the story a sense of credibility. I’ve said before, one of the things I think J. K. Rowling did so well was construct an incredible fantasy world. Others say she merely played off British boarding schools and that may be true. But through the details Ms. Rowling included, the world of magic came alive.

Horseless carriages that convey themselves, a sorting hat, a whomping tree, portkeys, food that appears in dishes on the dining tables, a ceiling that reflects the weather outside, broken wands mis-repaired that send spells incorrectly—on and on, each detail woven into the story with a high degree of consistency. There weren’t three school houses in one book and four in another. The new students weren’t placed in houses by the Sorting Hat in one book and by the Sword of Gryffindor in another.

Of course, the longer the book, the greater number of details there are to keep straight. An epic story like the seven Harry Potter books requires a great deal of work to keep all the details straight.

But I’ll come back to the point—why does it matter? I said credibility or realism, if you will, and that’s perhaps the greatest point, but in tangent is the fact that inconsistencies may pull readers out of the “fictive dream.” Rather than living side by side with the characters, the reader stops: Wait a minute, didn’t she say the trip took three days, and didn’t she leave on a Sunday? Then how can they be arriving on a Sunday? Did I miss something?

Lack of clarity can do essentially the same thing. The details might be right, but if they aren’t expressed clearly, the reader is still stopping, still looking back and checking to see why what she thought had been conveyed actually was something different.

So yes, details matter. At least they should.

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Tighten Your Writing

wrench-899403-mI love contests. Besides reading and feedback from critique partners, contests may be the best means by which my writing has improve.

For one thing, most contests give feedback, either through judges’ scoring sheets or through comments from other participants. Then too, contests provide opportunities to experiment—to try out a new premise or dance a little with a new point of view.

However, the most important thing contests have taught me is how to write tight. You see, most contests have some kind of word or page limit. In other words, you have to tell your story in 5000 words, or 1500, or 100.

One contest I entered, held by agent Janet Reid, was to write a 100-word story which included five words she specified. It’s quite the challenge, I can tell you.

My first version was nearly twice as long as the limit. Next came the editing process. What words were unnecessary? What phrase could I replace with a single word? What parts of the story were needed? All this to meet a stringent word count.

It dawned on me, however, that those questions are ones I should ask about my writing whether or not I’m constrained by contest rules.

Eliminating unnecessary words keeps a story or an article moving. Some unnecessaries are fillers that an author falls back on, often without realizing it—words such as just or even. I even told my writing partners contests were helpful, so I just decided I should enter, too.

Other unnecessaries are built-in redundancies. He stretched, raising up both arms. (Is it possible to raise arms down?) The unopened can slipped from her fingers and fell down on her foot. (Could the can fall up on her foot?)

The next phase of tightening writing is somewhat harder. What phrases can be replaced by single words? Prepositional phrases are good suspects. He touched the screen of his iPad can become He touched his iPad screen.

Hardest of all might be determining what parts of a story or article are or are not necessary. Everything needs to be fair game. Is a particular character adding anything new or is he merely taking up space? Is a particular plot point moving the story forward or is it veering away from the desired end? Is an article example shedding further light on the subject or is it duplicating the point of a previous illustration?

Writing tight takes work, and clearly readers won’t know how hard an author struggled to hone a story or article. What they will know, however, is that they remained interested from start to finish and their minds never wandered—something fiction and nonfiction writers alike should strive for.

– – – – –

This article, with some editorial changes, is a reprint of one that appeared here in October 2010.

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Do You Need An Editor?

writingAccording to Penny C. Sansevieri, CEO of Marketing Experts, Inc. and author of “Why Editing Is the Single Best Marketing Tool,” any serious author needs an editor.

I know my passing this information along might seem self serving, but the truth is, the editor you need might not be me.

First, why does every serious writer need an editor?

  • We have blind spots when it comes to our own writing
  • Our family and friends will love what we write, no matter how good it is
  • Our family and friends may not be able to tell us how to fix weak spots
  • Fiction without glaring errors is more apt to be the kind readers talk about
  • Critique partners, while helpful, may not have the knowledge or experience or ability to analyze what will move our fiction to the next level

If these things are true, and if Ms. Sansevieri is right, how should a writer go about picking an editor? According to Lauren Hidden of The Hidden Helpers, there are a few basics someone looking for editing needs to consider:

  1. Objectivity–someone who isn’t so close they will overlook mistakes because they are too afraid of losing relationship if they say what they really think.
  2. Knowledge–a person who knows your kind of project and who knows what changes to suggest
  3. Experience–an editor who other writers can recommend or endorse
  4. Price–an editor who offers services within your price range
  5. Service–someone who provides the type of editing you require
  6. Time frame–a person who can complete the work within the time period you specify

I think along with “Time frame” I’d add, “availability.” If you need your work edited at once and the person you contact has five other clients ahead of you, then you’d be wise to look for someone else.

I’d also recommend you do some comparative shopping. In the sidebar here at Rewrite, Reword, Rework, you’ll find a list of qualified editors. Some of those may also have links to other editors you may wish to investigate.

In other words, one editor does not fit everyone, nor are all editing services priced or structured in the same way. By doing your homework, you’ll have a much better chance of finding the editor that fits you and what you write. And that should be your goal.

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Get It All Down


If nothing else, NaNoWriMo is a great motivator for us writers to turn off the editing side of our brains and write. Rough drafts, after all, are supposed to be rough.

The problem is, novices think the first thing onto the screen is brilliant and a finished product. On the other hands, those of us further along the writing process tend to think we have to polish and perfect scene one before we can progress to scene two.

Years ago I was in a critique group with a writer (actually more than one) whose desire for perfection froze her. She couldn’t get past the problems of her previous novel and move on to her second. She endlessly fiddled and tweaked and rewrote and could not move on. Nothing was good enough. Nothing was perfect.

The truth is, nothing we write ever will be perfect. There is always something more we could do to make the story stronger or the character deeper or the theme more intricately woven into the plot.

It’s a hard truth for those of us who want our books to be our best. It’s such a hard truth that it ends up paralyzing too many good writers.

Enter a contest, of sorts, that pushes writers to produce volume, not quality, and suddenly stories are taking shape and frozen writers and pouring out pages.

But do we have to wait for November to experience this rush of creativity? I don’t think so. What we need to do is to commit first to getting the story down. Then we need to commit to going back and polishing those pages until they shine.

I don’t want to slide by the months when a story is gestating. I think that’s also a necessary step. Unlike children, however, stories don’t have a set amount of time they need to develop. And writers can take some steps to move the process along.

The “move along” activities are sometimes referred to as pre-writing. They might include research, writing character sketches, filling out character charts, or doing the early steps of a process like Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake method.

For me, my first pre-writing activity was to make a map of the fantasy world I was envisioning. As I worked, story elements suggested themselves, and I began to make notes. Eventually I worked on an outline, and then I was off.

In those early days of my writing career, I was operating with that false idea that I’d get the story right, with some minor tweaking, as soon as I transcribed my handwriting into my computer. (Yes, I still write my rough drafts in long hand, even for short stories, but that’s just me.)

The bliss of that ignorance was that I plowed forward and got the story down. As I learned more about writing, I found a disturbing truth emerge: getting the story down was becoming harder. I felt less and less willing to write what I knew was drivel and keep going. This scene was wrong, that character motivation was weak, this plot point was predictable. I wanted to get it all right that first time.

I’d been around writing circles long enough to know the importance of getting the story down, and yet at one point I was forcing myself to move on. I’d already torn up one opening and started over. I’d gone back and added in a scene I was pretty sure would make things better. But I was still unhappy, still stalled.

Until I made myself write. Without going back. Without rendering a judgment on what went on before.

This act of getting the story out may be the very best thing that NaNoWriMo does for novelists — even ones like me who don’t play. The emphasis on volume serves as a reminder that at some point we all have to sit down and release the words, which will add up to pages, then chapters, and one day a completed story, rough though it may be. After all, a rough story is a lot easier to pretty up than a non-existent one!

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Write Tight

I love contests. Besides reading and critique partners, contests may be the best means by which my writing has improve.

For one thing, most contests give feedback, either through judges’ scoring sheets or through comments from other participants. Then too, contests provide opportunities to experiment—to try out a new premise or dance a little with a new point of view.

However, the most important thing contests have taught me is how to write tight. You see, most contests have some kind of word or page limit. In other words, you have to tell your story in 5000 words, or 1500, or 100.

The latest contest I entered, one at agent Janet Reid’s site, was to write a 100-word story using five specified words. It’s quite the challenge, I can tell you.

My first version was nearly twice as long as the limit. Next came the editing process. What words were unnecessary? What phrase could I replace with a single word? What parts of the story were needed? All this to meet a stringent word count.

It dawned on me, however, that those questions are ones I should ask about my writing whether or not I’m constrained by contest rules.

Eliminating unnecessary words keeps a story or an article moving. Some unnecessaries are fillers that an author falls back on, often without realizing it—words such as just or even. I even decided I would just try it.

Other unnecessaries are built-in redundancies. He stretched, raising up both arms. (Is it possible to raise arms down?) The unopened can slipped from her fingers and fell down on her foot. (Could the can fall up on her foot?)

The next phase of tightening writing is somewhat harder. What phrases can be replaced by single words? Prepositional phrases are good suspects. He touched the screen of his iPad can become He touched his iPad screen.

Hardest of all might be determining the necessary parts of a story or article. Everything needs to be fair game. Is a particular character adding anything new or is he merely taking up space? Is a particular plot point moving the story forward or is it veering away from the desired end? Is an example in an article shedding further light on the subject or is it duplicating the point of a previous illustration?

Writing tight takes work, and clearly readers won’t know how hard an author struggled to hone a story or article. What they will know, however, is that they remained interested from start to finish and their minds never wandered—something I think worth striving for.

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Sentence Structure

Show, don’t tell. How many times does a writer hear that advice? And as a corollary, use the active voice, not the passive. The idea is, especially in this fast-paced society, readers want action—immediate, on-stage, before-your-eyes action.

The problem this can pose for the author is bland writing, created by an over-reliance upon the same old subject-verb sentence structure.

Here’s my suggestion. Take a look at a page from your work in progress and see how many sentences start with a noun or pronoun (the, a, an or possessive pronouns don’t count).

I pulled out one of my old, unpublished short stories and rewrote a bit to illustrate.

Cassie slammed the book shut and pitched it onto the coffee table. Her heroine didn’t have a clue what trapped really meant. Justin would undoubtedly be along to rescue poor stranded Debby in the next chapter. But who would rescue Cassie?

She checked her watch.

Except for the conjunction in the fourth sentence, each of these starts with a noun or pronoun (in bold type). Consequently, each sentence has the same basic construction. Granted, the first has two verbs and the second is complex, with a dependent clause embedded inside, but that’s not a lot of variety.

Now imagine this basic sentence-verb structure dominating a 1500 word story? Or an 85,000 word novel. Here’s the point, in an attempt to be clear, a writer can actually become tedious.

The solution is simple. Work to vary the kinds of sentences you use. Next time we’ll look at some ways to alter sentence construction.

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Sweating Punctuation

Ironically, the writers that worry about punctuation are most often beginners. Why? My guess is, writing from our school days was all about punctuation and capitalization and grammar and spelling and complete sentences. In other words, mechanics seemed to be the Biggest Thing.

In fiction, however, mechanics finishes dead last to story, characters, setting, and theme. Consequently, while an author shouldn’t ignore mechanics, paying meticulous attention to the rules of the writing road is premature if someone hasn’t given him feedback about the major elements that make up a story.

Why would a writer sweat over whether or not to put a comma before the and in a compound sentence if there’s a fair chance he may need to rewrite the sentence as two simple sentences, or as a complex sentence? Or as a deleted sentence. 😉

First the narrative needs to get down on paper or into the computer. Then the story needs a thorough revision, followed by a good amount of writing revision in which you pretty up your prose.

Certainly fix the mechanical issues as you see them, but a real search for those problems should not come until you’re ready to send off the manuscript to an agent who has requested the complete. At that point, you want your work to shine, and the other elements will be in place so you can concentrate on those irritating incidentals.

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Recommended Writing Books

From time to time in writing communities some one asks what writing books are the best. The idea of “best” depends upon what a person is looking for and what level of writing experience he has. Some writers want motivation and inspiration. Others want how-to information centered on the mechanics of writing. Others want story structure or scene structure, and so on.

Here are some of the books I have learned from with a suggested target reader:
Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass – for the more advance writer
Description by Monica Wood – for the more advance writer
Stein on Writing by Sol Stein – for the more advance writer
Getting into Character by Brandilyn Collins – for the writer with a particular need to focus on this topic
Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell – for the writer with a particular need to focus on this topic
Crafting Scenes by Raymond Obstfeld – for the writer with a particular need to focus on this topic
How to Write a Damn Good Novel II by James N. Frey – for the writer with some basic knowledge and experience
Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King– for the writer with some basic knowledge and experience
The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman– for the beginning writer

Even though I’ve indicated who I think might be the target reader, in reality, writers can learn from all sorts of books. I’ve read some on this list multiple times and learned new things on each occasion. Even an advanced writer can benefit from reading a book geared more toward beginners.

Ideally a writer will purchase his own copy of these books in order to underline and make notes in the margin. If cost is an issue, however, look for these in your public library. And prepared to take careful notes on paper.

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Many End Marks

Punctuation, like all of language, is in flux, and one particular aspect of end punctuation seems to be in the transition stage. I’m talking about multiple marks at the end of a sentence.

Certainly in cartoons and other forms of light reading, and in personal notes it’s not uncommon to see a question mark followed by an exclamation point … or two. However, in fiction such use of end marks is still considered excessive and may even mark an author as an amateur.

The rule, according to the Chicago Manual of Style is as follows:

    If a question mark and an exclamation point are both called for, only the mark more appropriate to the context should be retained.
    – from 6.123

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