Passive Verbs?

I am wondering about your opinions regarding the total elimination of all passive verbs in place of active verbs? I am trying to do this, but sometimes after doing so, the sentences just don’t feel or read right to me. Do any of you feel that there is a place in published fiction for some use of passive verbs?

I’ve observed that concepts like, “Never use adverbs!” and “Never write in passive voice!” are for students who need to learn lessons that they won’t unless given strict guidelines, where infractions against those guidelines risks a reduced grade. They’re good exercises, but as with all things in language, there are limits to their application beyond which they degrade one’s writing rather than improving it.

So, you think the usage of some adverbs isn’t a bad thing in fiction? I’ve always heard that you should rid your fiction of all adverbs, that they’re a sign of weak writing skills.

You can break any “rule” you want, as long as you know what rule you’re breaking, and why.


Hi NamoNakiMichi,

Take a close look at pages from the novels of a few writers you admire.

Mixed in here and there with the active, vibrant verbs, you’ll find passive verbs. You’ll find adverbs. Sometimes, lots of them.

And you’ll find sentences structured in the passive voice, possibly when the author wants to direct your attention over here and away from there.

What kind of rules are these, if the writers you admire can break them so easily?

The answer: they’re not rules. They’re bowling bumpers for beginning writers. :slight_smile:

None of the parts of speech are evil. Every sentence structure has its uses.

My advice is to take all writing advice with a grain of salt. Particularly when the advice is of the terse “never do this, always do that” variety. There is no such thing as never/always in fiction.



Say I’m breaking it because I think adverbs read well, but that might not translate over to the readers and as a result my book doesn’t sell. It’s so difficult to gauge what should be a rule and what shouldn’t be a rule.

What’s your take on the ratio of Reading Ease and The Glue Index?

I don’t personally use either tool, so I don’t know enough to comment on them.

I think JimRac’s advice is good.

For any algorithm you’re considering, see what it says about work that you admire.


If you think adverbs read well as a general principle, you are mistaken and probably should avoid them until you understand why the rule exists.

If you have a specific sentence or paragraph that you think is more effective with an adverb than without it, that’s a defensible choice.


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For a good look at how adverbs affect book sales, open one of the Harry Potter books at random: Adverbs, Adverbs, Adverbs.

Most writing advice, especially in these interwebbily obfuscated days, comes from people parroting advice they’ve heard elsewhere but not completely understood.

So my advice is, read writing advice skeptically. Spend more time reading writers whose work you admire, and think about why you admire it. Why this word and not that? Why do these paragraphs seem to be saying something simply and declaratively while stealthily saying something quite different? Something that will become blindingly apparent six chapters on?

I was an acquisitions editor for 30 years, and never once rejected a manuscript because the writer used adverbs or semicolons. Though I’ve rejected plenty because he or she used adverbs or adjectives or nouns or verbs badly, or unnecessarily.

It does sound as if that is what rdale might be saying. If so, I can only agree.

Maybe we should define ‘I’ve always heard’. We’ve all heard that advice, but is it the only advice we’ve heard? The only advice we’ve listened to? Is that actually ‘sound’ advice?

Question authority.

I think it’s important to understand ‘rules’, and ‘guidelines’, to the point where we need to know when and if it’s OK to color a bit outside the lines.

Stephen King is famous for saying adverbs are a tool of the devil and the mark of a neophyte. He has as much credibility as anyone, does he not? And well-deserved.

But take any story he has written, and remove all the adverbs. Now try to revise it so it does not need the adverbs. Believe me, there are plenty of adverbs in SK’s stories, and take them all out, and it will make little syntactical sense. It would be no more than gibberish.

If you were to port a SK chapter into The Hemingway App (which tallies adverbs and tells you if you have more than you should or less than you should) SK probably violates that number fairly often, his damned self. (Hemingway himself, does not). That app also flags passive voice, and tells you whether you have too much, implying that some is OK.

(But it might also not be worth the 20 bucks—I had a character named Sgt. Stokely. It flagged ‘Stokely’ as an adverb, simply because the algorithm it uses is too stupid to realize that the ‘ly’ suffix does not automatically imply ‘adverb’)

Also, I don’t believe for a second that we can boil down ‘how many adverbs are OK to use’ into an arbitrary number. What SK does is use them intelligently, and sparingly. That should be the real advice. IOW, don’t use too many, and don’t use them where you don’t need them, and write creatively in a way where the sentence works better with fewer adverbs. Don’t use them as a crutch or an easy way out (there is no easy way out in good writing).

The advice ‘No Adverbs!’ is really only useful to get the attention of beginning writers who have not yet understood the power adverbs can bring, and the pain of too many of them. If you can’t tell an adverb from an adjective, that’s a problem. If you aren’t aware that even two adverbs in a row dilutes both words, that’s a problem.

IOW, it’s not difficult to understand the nature of adverbs, what they bring, and what problems they could bring. Once you understand that, the advice ‘No Adverbs!’ seems completely ludicrous. Is someone telling you this to help you? Or draw attention to their own threatened ego? Or to confuse you and discourage you?

My advice is to understand the issue, realize what adverbs can do, what they can bring, and what they can threaten in your prose, then transcend such ridiculous advice, and just write.

Frankly, you don’t even have to know why to break them :slight_smile:

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In general, avoid it. It obscures thought, it’s generally wordier. But there are times in fiction when that’s exactly what you want. And in dialogue, well that’s how people talk.

Steven King was so high on cocaine he doesn’t even remember writing CUJO. Perhaps we should be a little more skeptical about his writing advice, especially from the years when he was addicted to drugs.

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Absolutely. All you have to do is write, keep the reader turning pages to see what will happen next, and move them emotionally. Those are the only guidelines that seem to matter.

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Some of the best music and literature have been written by drug addicts. :joy:

This thread makes me think of the French writer Georges Perec. To quote from the Wikipedia page dedicated to him:

‘Perec is noted for his constrained writing. His 300-page novel La disparition (1969) is a lipogram, written with natural sentence structure and correct grammar, but using only words that do not contain the letter “e”. It has been translated into English by Gilbert Adair under the title A Void (1994). His novella Les revenentes (1972) is a complementary univocalic piece in which the letter “e” is the only vowel used. This constraint affects even the title, which would conventionally be spelt Revenantes. An English translation by Ian Monk was published in 1996 as The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex in the collection Three. It has been remarked by Jacques Roubaud that these two novels draw words from two disjoint sets of the French language, and that a third novel would be possible, made from the words not used so far (those containing both “e” and a vowel other than “e”).’

So why not write a novel only using the passive voice? An interesting challenge for someone. :grinning:


Are we discussing lipograms? Then, have you read Padget Powell’s The Interrrogative Mood: A Novel??

Were you aware that it is written entirely in questions? Would you be surprised to know I thought it was very good, if a little strange? Who expects lipograms to be anything other than strange, though? Am I sure that it will annoy some people and interest others? What do you think?

(Should I stop now?)


Challenge accepted! This is going to be fun! :joy:

That would probably drive me to throw said book into my fireplace.