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These are my techniques:

Changing the order of the sentence:

I was happy because of what she did.

What she did made me happy.

Using "in" and "on":

1999 was the year I devoted myself fully to marine biology.

In 1999, I devoted myself fully to marine biology.

Inverting the order of the sentence:

Maybe it was my mistake.

My mistake, maybe.

Applying repetition:

I checked the newspapers on the wall. They were all about the crime.

I checked the newspapers on the wall. Newspapers about the crime. All of them.

Replacing "was" with a more "interesting" verb:

The hotel we booked was next to the river.

The hotel we booked sat next to the river.

Replacing "there wasn't/it wasn't" with "not":

There wasn't a single dress.

Not a single dress.

It wasn't that we didn't care about the house.

Not that we didn't care about the house.

Removing "it/he/she was":

We reached the hotel. It was a cozy place. I liked it.

We reached the hotel. A cozy place. I liked it.

A man approached my table. He was handsome, maybe in his thirties.

A man approached my table. Handsome, maybe in his thirties.

What do you think of these techniques? What are yours?

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  • 2
    I'm not sure that your examples use passive voice. Passive means, I think, that the subject of the sentence is missing: "Dogs were walked." The way to avoid this case is to add the subject to the sentence: "We walked the dogs." It seems that you're trying to get rid of "was" verbs, which are sometimes perfectly fine. In fact, in some cases I prefer your "bad" examples to the "improved ones." Maybe you could explain the problem you're trying to fix? Oct 1, 2015 at 18:14
  • 1
    Yeah, Ken's right. Your example isn't passive voice. A "passive voice" version of that sentence would be "I was made happy" or something similar.
    – Kate S.
    Oct 1, 2015 at 21:22
  • You guys are right. How about the new title?
    – wyc
    Oct 2, 2015 at 3:08

5 Answers 5

1

There are some really nice techniques listed. I think a couple of them jump through more hoops than necessary. The hotel examples, for instance:

The hotel we booked was next to the river.

The hotel we booked sat next to the river.

Or...

  • We booked a hotel beside the river.
  • We booked a riverside hotel.
  • We booked a hotel spread over the banks of the lazy river.

... etc. You get it. The prose, simplified, can sometimes present the best solution.

I liked the suggestions Thom offered in his answer about the cozy lodging house. Those are cool too.

I think the replacement technique has to be used with extreme caution. It will depend on the type of narrative you've established. But it can be a nice, punchy technique when it's applicable.

Over all, you've got some nice things on this list. Very cool ideas.

4

There's nothing wrong with "was". Not every sentence that uses "was" is passive voice, and even if the sentence were passive voice, that wouldn't necessarily be a problem.

The passive voice is when the sentence has no subject. A common test for passive voice is to add "by zombies" at the end of the sentence and see if it, at least grammatically, makes sense. For example, "The girl was hit" is passive voice, and the test of adding "by zombies" turns the sentence into "The girl was hit by zombies" which makes grammatical sense. "The girl was beautiful" is NOT passive voice, despite the use of the word "was", and if you try the test of adding "by zombies", you get "The girls was beautiful by zombies", which makes no sense.

So... your examples are not passive voice. And even if they were, there are good times to use passive voice. See When *should* I use passive voice? for discussion/examples.

The verb "to be" is a good verb, in all its conjugations. Overusing it will lead to boring writing, just as overusing any verb will lead to boring writing. But using it sometimes? Not a problem. Check your favourite books - you'll probably see lots of "was" and other forms of "to be".

2

What most people mean when they're talking about passive voice is really lazy, static verbs. Passive voice can be a useful tool, but lazy verbs put your text to sleep.

That said, I'm hardly an expert, but here's my opinion about your techniques:

  • Changing the order of the sentence: Looks good

  • Using "in" and "on": Looks good

  • Inverting the order of the sentence: Looks good

  • Applying repetition: I don't think so. I think the other sentences are far worse than the passive voice.

  • Replacing "was" with a more "interesting" verb: This is the one I had in mind when talking about lazy verbs. You have replaced the link verb, but the verb is still pretty lazy. Possibilities:

    • The old Victorian haunted the corner

    • The thick stone walls of the Bastille like dwelling guarded the corner

  • Replacing "there wasn't/it wasn't" with "not": Interesting. Your changes here twist the entire mood of the sentence. Will think about this one.

  • Removing "it/he/she was": The problem is that you're using a whole sentence as an adjective. Possibilities:

    • We reached the cozy lodging house. I liked it.

    • We reached the cozy inn. I immediately felt at home.

Anyway, you asked, so my $.02 worth.

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Your last example isn't grammatically correct.

A man approached my table. Handsome, maybe in his thirties.

"Handsome, maybe in his thirties." is a preposition, not a complete sentence. It's missing a verb.

This is better:

A handsome man, maybe in his thirties, approached my table.

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    How people talk and think isn't necessarily grammatical. And for an assessment, I don't think there is any problem with just listing impressions. More importantly, your version and theirs feel very different. I would probably prefer theirs in most stories, because it's a more suspenseful way of delivering things.
    – user54131
    Aug 26, 2022 at 19:43
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Missing the Point

These solutions are solving the wrong problem. The problem is not that was is a dirty word that needs to be removed. Was is often (but not always) an indication that you aren't providing enough detail.

I was happy because of what she did.

A wistful happiness? Transcendental? Warm? There are lots of kinds of happiness, and this sample doesn't tell me which of them the character feels, or why - there are lots of reasons to be happy.

She crouched down, dropping to the child's eye level, and handed him the ball. He took it solemnly, and she winked. My heart filled to bursting. It was just like her to take the time to connect with the little boy. I couldn't help but smile.

The problem with the original was the use of happy. (!) "Show don't tell" advice is overdone, but that's exactly what is going on here. The scene is stronger if we show the character's happiness instead of stating it.

Do More

The hotel we booked was next to the river.

Ok. Why does it matter? What emotion is the reader supposed to have when they read this line? I get that maybe we need to know the river is there so it can play a part later in the story (maybe someone falls in). But this line on it's own is pretty weak.

Outside the hotel window, the dark waters of the Hudson churned. The icy water flowed through a cold hearted city, and he shivered in the warmth of his room.

Now we've established both that there's a river, and we've done some tone setting and some characterization. For this character, NYC is a uncaring maybe even dangerous place.

Don't rework your sentences to remove was - Do rework the scene to add enough detail that the was disappears.

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