Using Active Voice to Make Your Words Count

Let’s flashback in time to almost a year ago. I had just finished the first draft of my third novel and my CPs were taking a crack at it before I dove into further revision. One of them (the one who lovingly rips apart most of what I write) said something that I’m only JUST NOW starting to fully understand.

“It’s not about making a word count,” she said. “It’s about making the words count.”

So at first, I was like, “Okay. I can do that.”


But then trying to put it in practice, I was like this:


See, the thing about making the words count is understanding which words DON’T count. (Or shouldn’t be there, is more accurate.) I think this is a problem several writers face and aren’t even aware of it. I mean, we LOVE words. That’s why we write. We love describing things and articulating our emotions. We love the idea of creating worlds that are so realistic, anyone who reads about them will be transported right into our minds. So to look at any of our darlings and have to kill them is tough. But I’ve found, as I’ve been working to improve my craft, that we use A LOT of unnecessary words.

I’ve seen both agents and editors on Twitter lament about this very thing. “Outrageously high word count.” “Word count needs to be halved.” “Cut 60K and MAYBE I’ll look at this.” It comes up all the time! (As a side note, if you struggle with too low a word count, the culprit is likely your plot. Either it’s not fleshed out enough or it’s lacking in content. This is a post for another time though.)

 So if you’re reading this and asking:

Do you have a point

Yes! And here it is: A great way to eliminate unnecessary words is by using ACTIVE VOICE. (Wait! Don’t go away. This is good, I promise. Keep reading.) Now, there are tons of articles out there that will describe the difference between active and passive voice so I won’t get into the definition of it. Rather, let’s talk about putting it into practice with some examples.

One: Search your MS for the word “Could.” This word usually precedes filtering or passive voice.

“Could hear”, “Could see”, “Could feel”, etc. Yes, there are circumstanced when “could” is necessary. “Could you pass the peas?” “I couldn’t let you die!” And so on. But “could hear” should just be “heard.” “Could see” should be just “saw” and so on.

Now, even once you’ve eliminated “Could,” this concept can be taken even further.

EX: “Near me, I saw a bear prowling through the woods.” This would be even stronger as just “Near me, a bear prowled through the woods.”  Removing “I saw” brings us closer to the narrator.

My MS is in third person, and I find that eliminating saw, heard, realized, and other filter words really helps the reader to feel closer to my MC.

Another EX: “Sarah entered the circus tent. She saw people everywhere. She heard a donkey bray as a clown honked a horned. She smelled popcorn and animal manure in the air.”  Now if we remove the filter words, it would read something like this: “Sarah entered the circus tent. People were everywhere. A donkey brayed as a clown honked a horn. The smell of popcorn and animal manure filled the air.”

Can you see how this is stronger? As a reader, instead of me TELLING you what to see and hear and smell, you’re getting to experience it firsthand. Removing filter words has a double benefit: lowering word count AND bringing your reader right into the action. Oh, and of course, it’s always better to “show” than “tell.” (Again, a post for another time.)


Two: Realized, wondered, thought, noticed, etc. These are thought verbs and in my last post I linked to a fantastic article by Chuck Palahniuk about how to “unpack” them. I love this article and would strongly recommend it (AGAIN) for those needing to flesh out their MSs. But since we’re focusing on eliminating words today, I’m going to talk about WHEN these words can just be cut.

EX: “I realized the bear was about to charge.” This would be stronger as, “The bear was about to charge.”

“I wondered if he might like me.” Stronger as, “Does he like me?” (Just flat out asking what our characters are wondering is better then us telling the reader that our characters are wondering anything.)

“I wondered if I should run away.” = “Should I run away?”

And some examples in third person: “Jane realized it was too late. She had to run.” = “It was too late. Jane had to run.”

“She noticed that he never smiled in presence of others.” = “He never smiled in the presence of others.”

charging bear

Three: Know, Knew

This is another thing we tend to say and don’t need to: “I knew I had to tell him I loved him.” “I knew it was getting late.” “I know you’ll hate me for saying this…”

All of these could just be, “I had to tell him I loved him.” “It was getting late.” “You’ll hate me for saying this…”

And in third person: “He knew he would never see her again.” “She knew something wasn’t right.”

“He would never see her again.” “Something wasn’t right.”

It’s simple, but you’d be surprised how often characters “know” things when they could just tell you what they know. (An exception: “You knew about this?” While you can technically “unpack” this sentence, there really isn’t a need to. Dialogue is the place where rules can bend a bit. Another post, another time.)

I don't know you

Four: Adverbs.

I know I rag on this all the time, but Stephen King has converted me. Now, I’m not as die-hard as he is about them. I will let them slide (occasionally) in dialogue because it HAS to sound natural. But a lot of times, we can cut quite a chunk from our manuscripts by just using stronger verbs.

Ex: “I ran quickly,” could become, “I sprinted.”

“I walked slowly,” could be “I trudged.”

“He spoke softly.” = “He whispered.”

Adverbs also tend to “tell” instead of show, so all the more reason to eliminate or replace them.

Five: That

I know what you’re thinking. “How can I write without “that?” The short answer: I’m not asking you to. The long answer: about a year ago I read “‘Writing with Clarity and Style” by Robert A. Harris. (I’d strongly recommend this as well.) There’s a segment called “Delete ‘that’ for flow, Retain ‘that’ for clarity.” In it, he states that there are sentences which need ‘that’ to clarify something. Then he says there are many sentences which use ‘that’ and don’t need to.

Basic rule of thumb for this principle: If you can read your sentence without the “that” and it still makes sense, then cut it. If it doesn’t, then keep it.

Example of deleting: “She sighed in relief when a sign indicated that their destination was but five miles away.”

Example of retaining: “It shattered the peaceful calm that had settled between them.” (If you removed this ‘that’ the sentence wouldn’t make sense.)

Remember: ALWAYS read your sentence out loud before deciding whether your ‘that’ needs to be retained or deleted.

This isn’t by any means a comprehensive list of ways to reduce word count. It’s just a starter post to help you sort out important words from words that can be important but are usually just overused. So, as you grab your cleaver and head back into the revision trenches, I hope you keep some of these words in mind. And let me remind you that you are NOT alone in trimming your word count. I’m right there with you, learning and growing as I go. Happy butchering, friends!

I did what I had to


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