Flash Fiction Contest Tips: Avoid Passive Voice

Thursday, March 04, 2021

Hello WOW Readers! I have been one of the first-tier contest judges for WOW’s quarterly flash fiction contest for over a decade, and it has been a huge pleasure to read your stories. I am writing this blog series on Flash Fiction Contest Tips to help you strengthen your flash writing and maybe even place in one of our contests! Tips are based on our scoring criteria and craft trends I’ve seen throughout the decade. 

TECHNICAL is one of the scoring categories for the flash fiction contest, and one criterion within that category is overuse of passive voice (as opposed to active voice). 

Passive vs. Active Voice



They receive a letter.

A letter is received by them.

We write books.

Books are written by them.

She could have gone to Rome last year.

Rome could have been visited last year.

I baked a batch of cookies.

A batch of cookies was baked.

He reads sports memoirs.

Sports memoirs are read by him.

In a sentence in active voice, the subject is doing the action: “I write stories.” In a sentence in passive voice, the object becomes the subject, but isn’t actually doing anything: “Stories are written by me.” Passive voice usually weakens your writing and makes it even wordier. 

In the example above, the active sentence (I write stories) is only three words, whereas the passive sentence (stories are written by me) is five words. And, as you know, strength and economy of words is crucial in flash fiction. 

Passive voice isn’t always wrong, but it’s usually not the best way to craft a sentence, particularly in creative writing. Writers more frequently use it in scientific writing when they’re trying to keep themselves out of their reports to appear more objective. 

When you truly don’t know the subject of the sentence – or the doer of the action – then passive voice can be a good option. For example, if you don’t know who wrote the stories, you could write “the stories were written.” You could also write “somebody wrote the stories,” but that calls attention to the “somebody” which you may or may not want to do. 

In a previous Flash Fiction Contest Tips post, I discussed how to eliminate unnecessary adverbs in a sentence. That example left us with this sentence: 

“She stood and grabbed the sword from the stone, which was placed on top of a cliff where a storm was brewing.” 

Can you spot the passive voice? 

“…was placed on top of the cliff” is an example of passive voice. We don’t know who placed it there, but by writing in passive voice, the sentence is wordier and weaker than it could be. So, let’s consider ways to strengthen this sentence while retaining its meaning. 

Example: “A storm brewed at the top of the cliff where she stood and grabbed the sword from the stone.” 

What are some other ways you could strengthen this sentence? 

Tips brought to you by Anne Greenawalt, who keeps a blog of journal entries, memoir snippets, interviews, training logs, book reviews, and profiles of writers and competitive sportswomen. She is a writer for WOW! Women on Writing, Trail Sisters, and Story Terrace. She has a master's degree in Creative Writing: Prose from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England and a doctorate in Adult Education from Penn State University. She is also a competitive swimmer, a trail adventurer, a dog lover, and a new mom. Tweets at @dr_greenawalt.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Anne--Active vs. passive is always a great reminder.

Personally, I would revise it into two or three sentences. I would changed it into:

She stood at the top of the cliff--a storm brewed. She grabbed the sword from the stone.


She stood at the top of the cliff. A storm brewed. She grabbed the sword from the stone... (I would add here what she did next, or what was going on in her head).

I imagine it's rewarding and inspiring to be a judge. Thanks for passing on your advice.

Anne Greenawalt said...

Thanks for your examples, Sioux! There are so many possibilities, and it looks like prefer the shorter active sentences. Staying true to your writing style is important during the revision process.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

For length:
As a storm brewed, she grabbed the sword from the cliff-top stone.

What I like:
As the storm grumbled, she seized the sword from the stone. Lightning lit the cliff top.

It is hard to balance the needs of story with word count. Passive voice tears through your count.


Renee Roberson said...

These are great and practical tips for strengthening our writing voice. I was fortunate to have been trained in college by a no-nonsense Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist who would mark each instance of passive voice in our writing assignments down by a letter grade. I caught on quickly!

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