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 October, 2001

Keep it Active

by Sandy Tritt


If the first rule of writing is Show, Don't Tell, the second should be Keep It Active. Active voice is what puts us in the middle of the action and allows us to feel. Passive voice is what gives us the feeling that someone is telling us a story that happened once upon a time.

Ray could suddenly feel the room widely circling around him before he started to wake up. He was feeling completely horrible. He hated feeling that way. Slowly rolling to his stomach and silently swinging one leg off the bed, he could use the floor as an anchor. The floor was solid and it would help to stop the dizziness. There was a good chance he would be very sick.

Exciting, huh? Okay, let's examine why this leaves us breathless with boredom.

  • Unnecessary words. Any word that doesn't add to your story detracts from it. Examine your prose for words like these: started to, began to, proceeded to, could, would, there was, there are, there is, there were, seemed to, tried to.
  • Inactive verbs. Watch for passive verbs, such as was, is, were, are. Replace them with active verbs, the most active and descriptive words you can think of.
  • Avoid -ing words. Verbs ending with "ing" are by nature more passive than those ending with "ed."
  • Adverbs. Those -ly words that precede a verb weaken it, not strengthen it. If your verb isn't strong enough to make the statement you want it to make, find a stronger verb.
  • Avoid Intensifiers. Very, really, totally, completely, truly and so on. Is completely empty any more empty?

Before we look at our example above, let's examine each of these concepts individually and see how they suck the power right out of our prose. Each of the following sentence pairs gives a poorly written sentence, followed by one that improves it.

  • It is the governor's plan to visit tomorrow. The governor plans to visit tomorrow.
  • John proceeded to dump sand on the castle. John dumped sand on the castle.
  • There were eight tiny reindeer leading Santa's sleigh. Eight tiny reindeer led Santa's sleigh.
  • Jack could hear laughter. Jack heard laughter.
  • Erin was sleeping. Erin slept.
  • Mike was very tired. Mike was exhausted. (Better yet: Exhaustion dripped through Mike's bones like slow pouring molasses.)
  • She quickly and purposefully walked to Jarod and sharply hit his arm. She strode to Jarod and punched his arm.

Now, before we apply these concepts to our example paragraph above, give it a try yourself. But be advised, more than one answer is possible, and I took it a step further and omitted complete sentences that added no value and redesigned others for a more effective flow.

Ready? This is what I came up with:

The room circled around Ray. He rolled to his stomach and swung one leg off the bed, using the floor as an anchor. Even before he opened his eyes, he knew he would be sick.

Half as many words, twice the power. If you want additional instruction or explanation on this, study the previous discussion on "Say it Once, Say it Right."

Learning to change ineffective passive prose into active voice is one of the most important things you can do to increase the quality of your fiction. Study this lesson until you can apply it to your own fiction.


(c) copyright 1999 by Sandy Tritt. All rights reserved, except for those listed here. May be reproduced for educational purposes (such as for writer's workshops), as long as this copyright notice and the url: http://tritt.wirefire.com are distributed with the pages. For use in conferences or other uses not mentioned here, please contact Sandy Tritt at tritt@wvadventures.net for permission and additional resources at no or limited charge.

   Keep writing!

Sandy Tritt

Inspiration for Writers tritt@wvadventures.net

Sandy's website











Fiction Writing and the

Quality Movement

Fiction Learns From

Textbook Publishing

by Bruce L. Cook

What can fiction writers learn from the textbook market? Plenty. And itís all about quality, believe it or not.

Weíre talking about quality as a business proposition. One of Demingís original 14 points (donít worry if you havenít heard about this.) The point that matters here is the one that connects the business with its customers. The business evaluates its work by feedback from its customers. Radical, huh?

What about fiction writers? Are they in contact with their customers? Do they see quality in this way? Or are they writing for someone else?

Take textbook publishers, for example. Their books are purchased by students who are their legitimate customers. But, when textbook publishers want to revise or improve the textbooks, do they talk to the student customers? No, they talk to someone else. Basically, they talk to the professors at their academic conferences and meetings. Why? Because itís the professors who select the books the students will buy. Not such a good deal for students.

OK, but fiction writers write for their readers, you say. Do they? Do you? Think about it? (And if they donít, itís not such a good deal for the readers, is it?)

When you send a manuscript out for publication, what audience do you think of? The readers, or the publishers who will publish the book for the readers. Címon, admit it. Maybe you threw in a sex scene into an adventure story so the publisher would buy it.  Why? So you could sell the manuscript to a publisher. Or maybe you have compromised your values in some other, less visible, way.

On the other hand, when you know the publisher will use the manuscript, are you now writing for your past teachers or some other peer group. In other words, are you trying to score points with your peers?

I suggest that we have too much of this in the publishing world. Somewhere we are losing our concern for our readers. And, in our eagerness to please others, we may be failing at our responsibility to become self-reliant writers too?

We need to have our own opinions and feelings. Why write if not to express these personal treasures? We need to avoid the easier path where we  merely reflect what we expect peers to like.

Bruce Cook, Editor

The AuthorMe.com Group


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Writers Beware:

Your Fire Can Burn You

by Jack Noel, Charter Member

    There's no better time in a writer's life than when they discover they've finally caught fire and are producing works worthy of  showing to the world.  But it's when the newly burning literary torch eagerly ventures into the forest of agents and publishers that his or her light is in most danger of being stolen or extinguished.


    It's generally known that some of those who offer to pass around one's first manuscript are actually wolves disguised as competent agents with legitimate entry  to publishing offices. What's less known is that these scamming agents are often working for equally fraudulent publishers.  This and other traps await the newcomer.

    The best way to protect yourself from getting burned is to become acquainted with the various scams and frauds.  To help, there are sources you can go to which will illuminate the  wolves lurking  in the underbrush.  One of these is given here. I'll wager that some of what you'll see will open your eyes wider than Little Red Riding Hood's.

Jack R. Noel

Here's the link.  http://www.sfwa.org/beware/

  • Special on Critiques
  • First ten pages free, and, for a limited time, all additional pages at 50% off the regular rate of $2.00 per page.  Just mention Publishing New Writers  Newsletter (October, 2001).
  • Critiques by Sandy Tritt...
  • Unlike most editors, I consider my role to be a mentor or a coach. Instead of just telling you what is wrong, I explain how to correct the problem, and I work with you to teach you how to write effective prose. More than 50% of my business is repeat business, and I relish establishing long-term relationships with other writers.
  • Treat you with respect and compassion. All criticism will be of the "constructive" sort. My purpose is to improve your writing, not to destroy your confidence.
  • Mark your manuscript, correcting grammatical and spelling errors and suggesting alternative wording where appropriate, line-by-line.
  • Highlight areas that are especially well-written, so you will know where your strengths are.
  • Where appropriate, offer suggestions for plot development, character development or other areas that could be strengthened.
  • Return a two-to-four page written analysis of your work. This will include evaluation of: plot, setting, characterization, dialogue, special effects (flash forwards, flashbacks, etc.), voice, point of view and any other areas particular to your work.
  • If appropriate, recommend reading or resources to strengthen your areas of weakness.
  • Answer any questions you may have via email.
  • Provide my telephone number for a personal follow-up, if you desire.

For Sandy's success stories, see http://tritt.wirefire.com/Manuscript_Critique.html

Write Sandy at tritt@wvadventures.net

(See Sandy's article in the left column.)


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Publishing New Writers,

October, 2001 (no.210)

Editor Bruce L. Cook, P.O. Box 451, Dundee, IL 60118.  Fax (847) 428-8974.

If [you] can continue to send me more useful information of any sort pertaining to writing it would be greatly appreciated. Your March newsletter has already been of a good deal of help to me. 

Thank you

Dave Fox

Submissions and comments to cookcomm@gte.net. Links are welcome.

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