Monday, March 13, 2023

Learning to Love Passive Construction

By Carolyn Howard-Johnson, author of the multi award-winning HowToDoItFrugally Series of books for writers including the winningest in the series, The Frugal Editor, just released in its third edition. 

Writers are often told to avoid passive sentences. Reasons for such admonitions are many because they tend to tug on the forward momentum we are usually trying to create. But passive construction can be used effectively, too. In fact we may find instances where our writing improves when use them. We can try to utilize what they’re good at in our writing and—at the same time—recognize their flaws so we can avoid them when they are just plain ugly.

Luckily, good editors are here to help. And so are many books. 

Your editor may help you avoid passive constructions by making suggestions to “activate” them. There are times, however, when you must do your own editing. In this article we’ll cover both how to spot passives and activate them when that is helpful as well as a few instances where you may want to enlist their help. 

Here are three simple passive sentences. See if you can figure out how to make them active and then read some possible edits in the next section. 

1. "I was offended by the President's proclamation." (This passive is sneaky because the word “I” posing there at the front of the sentence seems like the subject, but it hides the prepositional phrase alluding to “by whom.” Put “the President’s proclamation” at the beginning of the sentence, ditch the helping verb, and you’ll see how the sentence comes alive.)

2. "Catherine was being watched."

3. "Catherine was being silly."

Here is your cheat sheet:

1.   For the first you would, of course, make it "The President's proclamation offended me."

2.   For the second, you must ascertain the intended, unnamed subject that would name who was doing the watching, and plug it into the sentence. It might look like this:

"The fuzz watched Catherine."

(So, maybe you'd be more formal and call them "coppers!")

3.   The third example might throw you a curve. That's because it isn't a passive sentence. Here's the thing. We tend to assume a construction is passive when we see helper verbs and "ing" words. But these are not always passive indicators. That's one more thing for you to figure out in addition to deciding whether you want to avoid a passive construction. (You’ll find a lot more on that topic in the just-released third edition of my “The Frugal Editor.”)

You may choose (probably should) to avoid the not-so-active sounding helper verb with a mini rewrite:

“Gracie thought Catherine was being silly.” 

You might ask, “So, if these slowpoke constructions stall the forward motion of my prose, what are the good reasons for using them? 

Etymologists tell us that language develops in ways that facilitate our need to be more clearly understood. When we recognize what passive construction and its copycats can do for us, we may grow to love using passive—at least some of the time. Here are reasons you might want to intentionally use passive construction:

1.   You want to slow down the movement in a saga sent in the 19th century. I do some of that (very judiciously!) in my This Land Divided now being shopped by my    agent. It proves that the passive ploy worked, it won the best in B. Lynn Goodwin’s’s Scintillating Starts contest. 

2.    You need to set one character’s dialogue apart from another to avoid so many fussy dialogue tags. You can do that by assigning one character a tendency to use passive voice. Just be sure you assign that speech pattern to a character it suits—maybe someone who is slow moving, deceitful or…well, you decide. 

3.     You’re writing political copy and you want to avoid pointing a finger at, say, the FBI because you don’t want to get put on the dreaded US No-Fly list. So instead of saying “The FBI is watching Carolyn.” You say, “Carolyn is being watched.” It’s a way to avoid pointing a blaming finger at a perpetrator.

4.     If you write copy for pharmaceutical TV ads, your career could depend on knowing how to use passive voice. I watch TV commercials carefully because I do some acting. The passive voiceovers behind all those happy, healthy faces make me cringe. The use of passive voice clearly avoids assigning any responsibility for all those side effects and deaths. One actually says, “Deaths have happened.” The pharmaceutical company causing all those deaths gets off the hook nicely. 

We need to know how to make verbs active, when to leave them alone, and, yep. when to use them to our advantage. That way, we can take a red pen to them when they are likely to brand us as amateurs, occasionally put them to very good use, and even learn to love them.


Carolyn Howard-Johnson, a multi award-winning author of both fiction and nonfiction, is celebrating the release of the third edition of the winningest book in her HowToDoItFrugally Series of books for writers The Frugal Editor: Do-It-Yourself Editing Secrets from Modern History Press. She is a former publicist for a New York PR firm and was an instructor for the renowned UCLA Extension Writers' Program for nearly a decade. She is also an editor with years of publishing and editing experience including national magazines, newspapers, and her own poetry and fiction. Her The Frugal Book Promoter: How to Do What Your Publisher Won't ( won USA Book News' best professional book award and the Irwin Award. The Great First Impression Book Proposal: Everything You Need To Know To Sell Your Book in 30 Minutes or Less is a helpful little booklet available at It is in its second edition from Modern History Press. And don’t miss another booklet from Modern History Press, Great Little Last-Minute Editing Tips for Writers: The Ultimate Frugal Booklet for Avoiding Word Trippers and Crafting Gatekeeper-Perfect Copy Carolyn also appears in TV commercials for the likes of Blue Shield, Lenscrafters, Disney Cruises (Japan) and Time-Life CDs. Learn more about her at:


*I'd like to add that Carolyn is a dynamo when it comes to book marketing and just the nicest person you will ever meet - which we got to do several years ago! - Diane

Tuesday, March 07, 2023

Ohio Valley Anthology Features Young Writers

Dancing Lemur Press has a special release today.

Tales From the Valley is a collection of eight stories based in the Ohio Valley—and they were all written by teenagers! (The youngest author in 4th grade.) You would never know their ages by reading these well-crafted stories though. These kids are talented. And the whole project came together through the efforts of Elizabeth Seckman and Wetzel Advocates Toward Community Hope (WATCH).

Tales From the Valley

By WATCH Youth

Juvenile Fiction – short stories/action & adventure
Print ISBN 9781939844934, $10.95
eBook ISBN 9781939844941, $3.99

The Ohio Valley’s Rich Stories and Fables…

Can Anna Lee change her town’s history when she spins back in time? Can Tracy save her family when nightmare creatures drop from the sky? What could go wrong when a woman turns her father's murder into a profession? Can a loner help a girl find a survivor community in the wasteland before it’s too late? What happens when a teen hunts to escape a chaotic home life and finds himself the hunted? Is Tori gone forever, lost in the murky waters of the Ohio River? Will Von overcome Their malicious demeanor and break the chains of Their oppression? Will a fun-loving cheerleader learn she doesn’t have to stay the victim of her domineering boyfriend?

Come along as we traverse the richness of the valley…

“The future of literature is bright and hopeful with the young authors who make up this collection of short stories. Not only do they show a highly developed imagination for writers of such fledgling age, they are already adept at structuring and pacing the action. Each tale is coherent and a constant page turner. I couldn't put the book down until I read each one all the way through. Keep up the great work and never stop creating and writing, for the only thing that sustains us as indispensably as food, psychologically, emotionally and physically, is imagination. And imagination is our only real weapon against ignorance and the recidivism of humanity.” - Dave Shelton, multi-award winning film and TV writer, cartoonist, musician, voice actor and author. His credits include Everybody Loves Raymond, Nickelodeon, Warner Bros., Cemetery GoGo and the International Book Award winner, Bag Boy and Sweet Slob

WATCH* Youth is a child advocacy group committed to improving the emotional well-being of our kids by actively engaging them in social and creative programs. WATCH Youth Young Writers is a creative writing group open to all youth in the Ohio Valley.

Purchase Tales From the Valley at Amazon / Barnes & Nobel / Kobo / iTunes

Some of our WATCH Youth Young Writers
Patrick Ingold, Abigail Brady, Ashlyn Walters, Elizabeth Seckman, & Lily Giovinazzo
Not pictured: Landon Harris, Annie Roberts, Adyson Stalder, & Sydney Balcerek

Are you ready to journey into the Ohio Valley?

Also, if you’ve ever wanted to attend one of my seminars/webinars through the NC Community College Small Business Center, you can next week! I am doing Achieving Small Business Goals through Nash CC as a 2-hour webinar on Tuesday, March 14. Don’t let the “business” part fool you – it’s just as much about setting personal goals. Go to the registration page and scroll down to the correct webinar. A handout is provided and this session is a lot of fun!
Webinar Registration

Wednesday, March 01, 2023

The Insecure Writer’s Support Group and Visions of Atlantis

It’s time for another edition of The Insecure Writer’s Support Group, founded by Ninja Captain, Alex J. Cavanaugh.

Today’s question: Have you ever read a line in a novel or a clever plot twist that caused you to have author envy?

I can’t think of a line (and I’m amazed at those who remember lines from books) but I can think of some plot twists. And honestly, all three come from Dancing Lemur Press authors.

Bloodwalker by L.X. Cain
– there were multiple twists in this one and spread throughout the story. And such solid, amazing writing and storytelling skills. She didn’t just create a great story, she wrote it perfectly.

Dragon of the Stars by Alex J. Cavanaugh
– the big twist toward the end really surprised me, along with a lot of reviewers. He ventured beyond the Cassa universe and came up with a really unique and clever tale.

Big Red by Damien Larkin
– This wins for plot twists. You think you’ve figured out what is happening, why they are on Mars, when they are on Mars…but you’re wrong! It’s just crazy but it works so well.

All three of those just amaze me. I wish I wrote that brilliantly.

* * *

Thanks to everyone who has read and reviewed In Darkness: The Vampire, my first new release in 10 years.

You can find it here: Amazon / iTunes / Barnes & Noble / Kobo / Scribed / Goodreads

* * *

And finally, my amazing husband treated me to a concert and VIP passes for one of my favorite bands, Visions of Atlantis.

They came to NC last year, touring with several other bands, and we did the VIP pass then, too. But this time, they were headlining and we got to spend a whole hour with them before the concert. They sang five songs just for us, we got our pictures taken, and then they signed stuff and chatted with us. They are such a nice group of people and the show was one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. I also came away with a signed booklet, signed CD, signed VIP pass, signed pirate hat, a sweatshirt, and a t-shirt.

One of the best birthday gifts ever!

Have you read any of the books I mentioned or seen Visions of Atlantis?