Tactical Tuesday: Advice for Self-Editing

Some authors believe all passive sentences are bad. They’ve heard the rule that all forms of to be are to be cut from their manuscripts.

Let’s explain and debunk that myth.

Passive sentences are those in which the subject of the sentence does not perform the action described in the sentence. Instead, the action is done to the subject. Here’s an example: The balloon was popped by the demon child. The balloon is our subject, and the action done to it was the popping of it by the demon child. A hint that the sentence is passive is the word by, which denotes who did what to the subject.

A more precise and active sentence structure would be: The demon child popped the balloon. In this example, the demon child is our subject. Popped is our verb and the balloon is our direct object.

Eliminating passive sentences in our manuscript tightens the prose, but it does something much more important. Passive sentences tend to keep a reader on the outside looking in. When the subject is constantly being “done to” it is a form of telling. The writer is telling the reader what happened rather than allowing the reader to experience it closely. Active sentences bring the reader deeper into the story.

Think of words as a picture. When we say, “The balloon was popped by the demon child,” our brain sees it as already done. Past tense. The author is just telling us that it occurred.

A more precise picture is painted when we write, “The demon child popped the balloon.” Yes, popped is past tense, but the sentence structure: subject/verb/direct object brings the picture immediacy.

A common mistake made by critique partners is to label every sentence with a to be form of verb as passive. Often that is the case, but the true test is the one mentioned above. The subject must be done to and not doing. Therefore, just because a sentence has an is, are, was, were, etc., doesn’t make it passive. Though, most of those forms can be substituted for a more vibrant word that paints a better word picture.

And one more thought: while passive sentences should be few and far between, there’s a reason we have the construction. One good reason is an intent by the author to be vague about casting blame on the one who might be doing the action. Another reason is the fact that the passive form is the only right one for that sentence.

Let’s take this sentence: “The balloon was popped by the demon child.”

What if this is a deduction by a caped hero who is tracking this demon child, super villain? Our super hero taps his finger to his chin. “The balloon was popped by the demon child,” he deduces. “But who gave the demon child the balloon?”

The popping of the balloon had occurred sometime in the past, not immediate to the scene. This passive form works here as our caped crime fighter realizes there is someone giving orders to the demon child.

Myth debunked.

Happy editing.


  1. Thank you so much for explaining that so clearly. Makes much more sense now.

  2. Enjoyed this one, Fay. It certainly helps clarify this often troublesome topic. Thanks!