Writing in active voice: Why action verbs trump “to be” words

Writing in Active Voice | Using active voice and lively, concrete verbs helps students achieve their goal of painting a vivid word picture.

Importance of Writing in the Active Voice

In writing, active voice almost always trumps passive voice.

Typically, frequent use of “to be” verbs results in weak or passive writing, while writing in the active voice draws readers in and keeps them interested. Using lively, concrete verbs helps students achieve their goal of painting a vivid word picture in the reader’s mind.

Your child might write a sentence like this:

My dogs were fast.

While true, it certainly doesn’t conjure up a concrete image. Notice how much more descriptively your child could express his dogs’ speed by using active verbs:

My dogs tore around the field.
My dogs flew like the wind.
My dogs raced across the grass.

What a difference! When coupled with a descriptive prepositional phrase, strong verbs lend precise meaning to a once-vague sentence.

You’ll never hear me say it’s wrong or bad to use “to be” verbs; I use them myself! Just help your children become aware of how often they use words like “is” and “was,” and train them not to use these words in excess.

What Are “To Be” Words?

Every student should memorize this short list:

  • is
  • am
  • are
  • was
  • were
  • be
  • being
  • been

How and When to Avoid “To Be” Verbs

Active voice adds impact to the writing. To help students avoid “to be” words, show them how to:

1. Expand their vocabulary
2. Use sentence variations.

Sometimes a writer can simply replace a “to be” verb with a more specific verb. Learning to use a good thesaurus gives teens an amazing tool for choosing stronger, more descriptive verbs.

Other times, students must move words around in order for their writing to still make sense. That’s where sentence variations come into play. The more sentence variations a student has in his tool kit, the easier it becomes for him to rearrange a sentence. At first, he may not have many variations to work with. But each time he learns a new sentence variation, he’ll feel better equipped to write in the active voice.

Students should avoid “to be” words when:

  1. Another verb will make the point more clearly.
  2. They find they have already used too many “to be” words.
  3. The writing lacks action.

Weak: Vegetables were being sold by farmers at the produce stand.
Active: Farmers sold vegetables at the produce stand

Weak: A glass of orange juice was refreshing to Monroe.
Active: Monroe drank a refreshing glass of orange juice.

Weak: The first step is to get soap, a bucket, and some old rags.
Active: First, gather soap, a bucket, and some old rags.

Weak: Being lazy and sloppy, Mark never makes his bed.
Active: Lazy and sloppy, Mark never makes his bed.

Weak: Rowan was much taller than Seth.
Active: Rowan towered over Seth.

Weak: Janna was a disciplined, hardworking pitcher for the Rockets.
Active: Hardworking and disciplined, Janna pitched for the Rockets.

Weak: My bike was hit by a car which was being driven by an elderly lady who was in an old sedan.
Active: An elderly lady driving an old sedan struck my bike.

Should We Ban Them?

“To be” verbs play an important role in our language. However, unless you train your child to watch for, avoid, and replace these words, they will dominate his writing.

Strong verb use doesn’t stop at high school graduation. For example, several years ago a friend took an English class at our local community college. He said the instructor only allowed her college students one form of “to be” per typed page!

It’s not that these words should be forever banned; it’s just that active verbs speak powerfully, while weak verbs say little. Limiting students’ use of “to be” verbs forces them to think about their sentence structure and choose their words more wisely.

What about Helping Verbs?

There are times when the imperfect case (“I was running”) is the best case for a sentence. Unfortunately, that means the helping verb is also a “to be” verb.

The helping verb is necessary sometimes. However, it can be challenging to teach a 12-year-old the difference between passive writing (I was hit by the ball) and progressive writing (It was snowing in Chicago). He can’t always grasp why the first one isn’t OK (because it’s passive) but the second one is (because it’s a helping verb).

That’s why the older WriteShop levels give students limitations on use of “to be” words, allowing them the freedom to keep one or two in place. A student has to weigh each use of “to be” and decide which one he just can’t seem to rephrase. That’s the one he keeps.

Here are a few ways to remove “to be” words from sentences written in the progressive tense:

It was snowing in Chicago when we arrived.

We arrived in Chicago just as it started to snow. Or,
We arrived in Chicago during a snowstorm.

I am shipping a package to my cousin in England tomorrow.

Tomorrow I will ship a package to my cousin in England.

Rosie is opening a new restaurant in town.

Rosie plans to open a new restaurant in town. Or,
Rosie’s new restaurant opens in town this week.

Two kittens were playing with a ball of yarn.

Two silly kittens swatted at a ball of yarn. Or,
Two kittens playfully swatted at a ball of yarn.

Practice Writing in the Active Voice

Invite your teens to try one of these ideas.

  1. Give kids the list of weak sentences only (see above). Invite them to come up with ways to replace the “to be” word in each. Share a few of their new sentences in the comments!
  2. Have students read through a story or report they wrote recently. Instruct them to use a red pencil to circle every “to be” verb they find. (Sometimes it helps to read the writing piece backwards, starting from the last word.) Next, ask them to rewrite one or two of these sentences, using concrete verbs instead of “to be” words.

WriteShop’s older levelsWriteShop I and WriteShop II - homeschool writing curriculum for teens teach teens to limit the number of “to be” words they use in each composition. To help them write in the active voice, both WriteShop I and WriteShop II encourage them to expand their vocabulary and use sentence variations.

WriteShop I acts as a training ground to make students hypersensitive to the frequency with which they use “to be” verbs. Partway through WriteShop II, we lift the ban on these words and give more freedom to the writer. It’s our hope that, in future “real world” writing, they will find themselves using “to be” words more wisely.

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