Word Count or Why Passive Sentences are Evil

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P
assive writing is killer. It kills your action. It kills your pacing. It kills your readers’ connection to your character. But it’s awesome for your word count, which is why I hate it so much right now.

Writing in passive sentences helped me win NaNo, but it is killing my word count in revisions.

Changing “they were running” to “they ran” may only cut your word count by one, but when you multiply that by sentences upon sentences on pages upon pages, it’s a massacre. It’s soul crushing to realize that almost a fourth of your book was “were.”

Why do I care so much about word count? Truthfully, I should care less. Or at least, I should ignore it for the time being. Like the stock market, I need to ride it out a bit and not check every day/hour/revision (ahem).

But word counts are important because, in the end, I do want this story to be a published book.

In a recent post, Write Strong talks about “The Importance of Knowing Your Story Length.” It includes recommended word counts per genre, so check it out. Back in 2009, Bookends, LLC has a similar post entitled “Word Count.”

In many of the query commentaries I’ve seen (Query Shark, Evil Editor), word count plays an important role. If it’s too low or high for the intended genre, the editors see it as a red flag that you, as a writer, don’t know what you’re doing and that you don’t know your genre and audience. Readers expect hundred of thousands of pages in a fantasy because they want you to paint a rich and real world. Readers of picture books, not so much. The Bookends, LLC post talks more about this.

Struggling with my word count does make me wonder if I’m a slave to the counter or, maybe, I don’t really have as good a handle on my story as I thought I did.

I can’t blame that on passive sentences, but I’d sure like to.

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10 thoughts on “Word Count or Why Passive Sentences are Evil

  1. Yikes, it does sound tough to see your wordcount get massacred during revision (it will probably happen to me too). But by taking out the weak words, you’re upping the quality of your book. So congrats on moving toward publication! 🙂

  2. bethfinke

    Hard to count (!) the number of times I’ve finished a book and thought, gee, they could have cut a lot of this and it would have been a tighter, more enjoyable read.
    This fixation with word count might explain why. Hard to imagine the likes of Hemingway adding words just to prove to editors that
    He knew what he was doing and knew his genre and audience.

    • Sadly, Beth, I don’t think agents see me as the next Hemingway. Probably because I don’t drink enough…

      Your point is well taken, though. I agree. There are few books that I’ve wished were longer. I wonder if word count recommendations will be part of the shake up of ebooks v traditional publication.

  3. Many thanks for mentioning Write-Strong.com. Passive writing is one of the biggest things writers struggle with. It’s so easy to slip into, but it’s so valuable to be able to spot and weed out. And not just for the word count, but for the subtle way it impacts the story itself, bringing a more active voice to the surface and keeping the prose as tight as possible.

    • Josh, thanks for the article! It’s true that passive voice was strangling my story and needed to be weeded out…for so many reasons!

      Some days it feels like passive voice is my default. I’m trying to overcome that. Is there a self-help group for that?

      Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Gordon Darroch

    What are you talking about? “They were running” is not passive voice. It’s progressive active. A non-native speaker learning English at intermediate level could tell you that.

    It also has a different function in storytelling. “They ran” is a narrative event. “They were running” is scene-setting. “They were running up the hill when they found the body” marks the discovery of the body as the main narrative event in the sentence, while running up the hill is the context. Saying “they ran up the hill and found the body” gives the two actions equal status. If that’s your intention, fine, but be aware you’re changing the meaning of the sentence, not just grinding the word count down. If you’re not alive to these nuances, you’re not doing your job as a writer.

    “Needed to be weeded out”, on the other hand, is a perfect – and appropriate – use of the passive voice. If you like you could change that sentence to “the passive voice was strangling my story and I needed to weed it out,” but I think it works better with a continuity of subject.

    Good luck with the revision. It’s where the real writing gets done.

    • Perhaps I did over simplify it. You’re absolutely right that there are times where passive works. However, broadly speaking, my MS was a terrible passive voice mess.

      Here’s to revisions!

  5. I’m also a slave to word count, as in I stress that there is way too many words in my MS! The initial panic attack occurred two weeks ago, and thankfully it’s partially faded into the background now. But I suppose it’s better to have more than less because there are numerous ways to trim word count. I’m still writing my first draft and trying to avoid the passive sentences as much as I can, but I’m not worrying about it too much. I’d rather finish the MS first, then really work on it, than vice versa. If I went about it the opposite way, I could most likely be spending years writing the story! Best wishes with your editing and if some sentences or phrases are too hard, highlight it, move on and return to it later. You may have gleaned more experience and ability to repair a sentence by the time you return to it!

    • Too many words is a wonderful problem to have!

      Thank you…I love the idea of highlighting difficult sentences and coming back to them later. Much better than my plow through it technique.

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