In The Edit: Janice Hanna Thompson

Enter the Way Back Machine with me.

In 2005, a newbie fiction writer (though well into a communications career as a corporate editor) wrote to the e-mail loop of American Christian Fiction Writers seeking a freelance editor to look at his manuscript, pat him on the back, and provide an immediate connection to the perfect editor for his perfect manuscript—the first step toward fame and fortune.

That writer was me and Janice Hanna Thompson was among the freelance editors to respond. After corresponding and agreeing on a price, I sent her my manuscript.

Janice Hanna Thompson, author of Fools Rush In and Stars Collide

She read it, liked it, said it was good, and proceeded to Track Changes me upside the head over and over and over again. I distinctly remember thinking, “I thought you said it was good.” Fortunately, I already had rhinoceros skin from my years as a newspaper reporter.

In the intervening years, I’ve grown to appreciate not only Janice’s writing and editing skills, but also her people skills that enabled her to both encourage and challenge me.

Now, as the editor of ACFW Journal, I had the pleasure of editing an article Janice queried and submitted on how to merge comedy and drama in a Christian novel. She has graciously allowed me to share the process of editing that article here.

See Janice’s original article here.

Janice’s edit

I focused on three issues with this article:

  1. Extra words
  2. Word choices
  3. Judicious shortening, particularly in the sidebar

See my edited version in track changes.

Don’t over make your point

Writers like to write in a series of points. We want to make sure the reader gets it. We need to be clear in communicating our knowledge. (See how I did that there? We love this!) But it can be overdone.

There’s a little of this here. See the first graf.

Janice, rightly, began her article by making a case for using humor to communicate about our angst-ridden lives. But I thought the lead was too heavy on that and preferred the specific instances, rather than the generic. The elimination of the one-word sentence Suffering. smoothed it out for me.

There were other instances in the second and sixth steps of the article, where I eliminated just one point in each (different lifestyles in the second and Pick up the pace in the sixth) to give the reader credit for understanding and move the article on.

Say what you mean

Using exact words turns your sentences from OK to great in a matter of moments. While one word may be technically correct, another choice can imbue your prose with clarity. Let’s look at a couple of examples:

  • Wondering if they should leave their marriages.
  • Wondering if they should leave their spouses

Marriage is an institution, and an important one, but a spouse is a person. Using spouse gave it more emotional impact.

  • There’s a certain cadence to repeating something three times for effect…
  • There’s a natural cadence to repeating something three times for effect…

Using natural gives the sentence a different dimension. Certain was not wrong, but natural tells the reader more.

Make it fit

This can be the hardest thing for an editor. How can I shorten this piece without losing anything critical? Janice hit the word count I asked her for, but in laying out the magazine we determined we needed to put an ad on the same page.

Something had to go. But whatever left had to leave no discernible hole behind. In other words, Janice’s article still needed to make sense. What I did was pick the phrases (particularly in the sidebar) that offered unnecessary explanation or which, if eliminated, weren’t missed. Some examples:

  • The cliché (a smile is a frown…).
  • The explanatory note in point 3.
  • Phrases in the sidebar.

See the article in the July issue of ACFW Journal.

Janice, thanks—for the advice and encouragement long ago and for letting me use your article on my blog.

By the way, I also offer freelance editing services. See my information.

Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line

In The Edit: Mike Dellosso

Mike Dellosso, author of Frantic and Rearview

Today’s In The Edit is, once again, a little different. For the July issue of ACFW Journal, suspense author Mike Dellosso (also d.b.a. as Michael King) interviewed Michael Hyatt, chairman of Thomas Nelson, author of the new book Platform: Get Noticed In A Noisy World, and the keynote speaker for American Christian Fiction Writer’s upcoming September conference.

After Dellosso interviewed Hyatt, it seemed wise to him to do the article in the Q-and-A format. In other words, to let Hyatt speak for himself rather than through the interpretation of the article’s author.

I liked the idea and greenlighted it. The end result was, like Hyatt, “the real deal.”

See Dellosso’s original article.

Editing process?

So, editing for a Q-and-A is pretty much a no-brainer, right? In many ways, yes. But there are a couple good guidelines to bear in mind if you ever get the opportunity to write (or edit) a Q-and-A article.

  1. Extra words: These can still be a problem, but must now be balanced against accurately presenting what the subject said.
  2. Grammar questions: There’s a difference between the way we speak and the way we want to be perceived in print.
  3. Reader-focused: How to be true to the subject of the interview as well as the reader.

Read my edit with track changes.

Trimming a Q-and-A

Here at Writing On The Fine Line, one of the key things I always point out are the extra words that find their way into our sentences. Tight writing is preferred over loosey-goosey prose every day.

But what about when those words are part of an actual quote—as they are in a Q-and-A article? Let’s look at Hyatt’s answer to the question about how he balanced work and family.

Hyatt: I didn’t always do that well. There were certainly times when I was tragically out of balance—where work was consuming all of my time and life. and I did what a lot of people do and convinced myself that I was in a temporary situation, that if I could just get through this season or just get this project done that I could then give focus to what I knew was important, which was my family.

People often speak in what, if printed, would be run-on sentences. In a newspaper this problem can be solved by indirect quotations and saving the actual quotes—what’s between the quotation marks—for the particularly pithy or meaningful words. However, in a Q-and-A that’s not practical.

So I elected to do strategic tightening, leaving many words in that I would edit out if this were fiction dialogue, but staying true to both the literal meaning of Hyatt’s words and his intent. None of the words deleted altered Hyatt’s remark or cast a false light on what he was saying.

Woulda, coulda, should not

There were a few places where Dellosso transcribed Hyatt as saying “gonna” and “gotta”. Unless trying to establish that an interview subject is a Southern gentleman, I opt for correcting these little speaking shortcuts we all use.

Why? Mostly because it’s right that way, but also because people are judgmental. I wouldn’t want someone thinking poorly about a interview subject I’m talking to. The AP Stylebook supports this: Do not use substandard spellings such as gonna or wanna in attempts to convey regional dialects or informal pronunciations, except to help a desired touch or to convey an emphasis by the speaker.


Always bear audience in mind. When you do that, you look at the information being shared in a Q-and-A and determine how to structure it so that the audience both benefits from the information and gets a true representation of the person providing the knowledge.

In some cases, though not in this case, that may mean cutting out whole chunks of quoted material that are not relevant. What it meant in this piece was taking some of those spoken run-ons and creating sentences out of them to make it easier for the reader to grab the sense of what Hyatt was sharing. Here’s one example:

So cContent is king but platform is queen. You’re not going to succeed in today’s publishing environment without both. so aAuthors have to stop telling themselves, this story that “I’m not good at selling.” “I’m not a marketer.” “I’m an introvert.”, whatever it is. That’s not going to be helpful to them. , tThey’ll end up playing the role of a victim where they blame everybody else about why their book didn’t sell. You’ve got to take responsibility and own it.

An important point was being made in this graf, and I wanted to emphasize it. First, I got rid of the so’s, which we commonly use when transitioning in conversation. Then I put what author’s need to stop saying to themselves within quotation marks because I don’t want the audience to miss that and the marks will make it more like dialogue—and make that part more noticed.

View the story as it appeared in the July issue of ACFW Journal.

Mike Dellosso, thanks for coming In The Edit with me today! I appreciate it.

Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line

I Live To Serve!

I started this blog to, as the sidebar says, “help writers cross the fine line between where they are and where they want to be.” One way to do that, I reasoned, was to draw back the veil a bit between the editor and the writer.

As an editor, it thrills me to help writers see ways they can improve their writing in order to better communicate. Because, as George Bernard Shaw (right) says, “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

I’ve now been playing with words on this blog for nearly three months. With that in mind, I hope you’ll indulge me and answer my poll. Do you like what you’re reading here? What do you like best? Are there other topics you’re interested in? Thanks in advance!

Michael Ehret, for Writing On The Fine Line

In The Edit: Jennifer Slattery

In these posts, with the author’s permission, I look at their work pre-editing and post-editing—and at what I did to improve the piece. The idea is to catch a glimpse into not only the editing process, but the relationship between editor and author.

Jennifer Slattery

Jennifer Slattery is one of my favorite writers for the ACFW Journal. She comes up with great ideas, pitches them well, and then executes them pretty much to my expectation. She is an editor’s dream, because I know I won’t have to reconstruct or rewrite, but more than that, that she’ll make it interesting.

The piece we’re looking at today—a feature on author Athol Dickson—is one of my favorites. It ran in the July 2012 issue of ACFW Journal. I’ve attached the designed spread (below) so you can see how well it works.

Dickson is, for me, one of those writers almost of mythical proportions. His body of work is consistently engaging and thought-provoking. Yet, Jen has revealed him as entirely human.

Jennifer’s edit

See Jennifer’s original.

These are the three main things I addressed in this article:

  1. Article’s purpose: This is a little hard to define, but for magazine writing—and specifically for a writer’s magazine—the features have to show the reader who the subject is without coming across as a tour guide or promotional piece. I did this by:
    • Punching up the lead.
    • Enhancing Jen’s natural accessible flow
    • Paying close attention to word choice.
  2. Writing tighter: Paring down where possible and expunging unnecessary information.
  3. Style issues: AP style and manuscript style.

See my edit in track changes.

What are we doing here?

Any magazine you write for has a style, an audience they are trying to reach. The ACFW Journal’s audience is Christian writers, published and unpublished. Our mission is to instruct, inspire, motivate, and entertain them.

Since that’s our audience, we need to write with eloquence, while adhering to established writing mores the organization teaches.

We want to grip the reader from the get go and then make it disarmingly easy to continue reading. One example is the change in the lead. You can see that what Jen did in one paragraph, I turned into two. The content is largely the same, but trimmed and divided into the punch (graf 1) and the support (graf 2).

Advice: As you write, think about the map of the magazine you’re targeting. We use a 3-column grid, big art, and lots of pull quotes, white space, and color. Jen’s original lead, while containing the right information, would have been a mass of grey in our grid.

Did I mention tight?

Review my previous In The Edit posts for lots of tips on how to write tighter. Though I use many of them in Jen’s piece, today I want to focus on just one: Getting rid of information the reader doesn’t need or that doesn’t add substantially to the piece.

In the section, ‘I’m done with You’, where we learn that Dickson was angry at God, Jen originally included this quote: “There was a televangelist talking on the TV set at that moment, and I watched that man jabbering on and on and strutting on the stage.” But, Dickson had just said he was mad at God, so why diffuse that anger by including the televangelist?

Don’t get me wrong—it may have been an important part of Dickson’s thinking. But without a lot more explanation, the reader is not going to feel the same indignation. Better to get right to what he was feeling when he was angry with God.

You can see similar cuts made elsewhere in the track changes version of the article.

Stylin’ baby, stylin’

Each magazine, newspaper, or publishing house has a style guide they adhere to. Our go-to guide is the AP Stylebook, the preference for many newspapers and magazines. AP stands for Associated Press.

You’ll note in Jen’s original, she referred to Athol Dickson on second and subsequent references as Athol. But AP style is to default to last names on second references. (Exception in this article: When quoting Athol’s brother, also a Dickson, for clarity we used first and last names for both brothers.)

Another style issue is the use of says instead of said for attribution. The thinking is this gives the article a stronger immediacy. Personally, I do not agree, but this is one area where I grit my teeth and go along with what is becoming standard practice.

Finally, in the style section, if you are sending an article or manuscript to an editor, it is still expected that you send it in double-spaced paragraphs, with half-inch indents, and a 12pt serif font such as Times New Roman. Unless you know with certainty, as Jen does, that your editor prefers another approach. (I prefer single-spaced, no indents, because I never edit on paper, only electronic.)

See my edited version, clean.

See the designed version from the ACFW Journal.

Jennifer, thanks for submitting this piece to In The Edit. As always, I enjoy working with your writing. Because you submitted, you are now eligible for a 25-percent discount on any of my editorial services.

If you would like to see your writing in a future In The Edit post, send a maximum of 350 words to opusmle (at) gmail (dot) com. Please send in Word format (.doc). You too can be eligible for a 25-percent discount.

Michael Ehret, for Writing On The Fine Line

Where’s Today’s Post?

I invite you to visit one of my favorite blogs, Novel Rocket, where I post today about ways to cut words from your manuscripts.

Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line

In The Edit: Sherri Stone

Sherri Stone, by her own description, is “a social worker by profession. (She is) a writer, unpublished for now and waiting on God’s timing and plan for this.

Sherri Stone

“In the meantime He has provided a critique group to help me polish and hone my skills.”

Further, she has “been writing for several years now, but really got serious about it last year.” She writes that she’s “taking every opportunity to practice and polish my writing skills.”

And I would say her efforts are paying off. This submission has one of the best starts ever! Three short words, but it hooks the reader right away.

See Sherri’s original.

Sherri’s edit

See my edit with track changes.

The biggest problem is trying to determine the story’s point of view. Who is telling the tale? It seems Susanna Larkin is and that’s the POV I chose to work with. But the original is written as if Sherri is afraid to inhabit Susanna completely. That’s a distance that needs to be erased.

A secondary challenge is finding ways to characterize Susanna from the beginning. What I’ve done may not be the true character of Sherri’s Susanna, but I want to show ways to easily add in character that Sherri can use when making the character her own.

Finally, there are a few instances of including information the reader doesn’t yet need. A novel’s opening must set the characters in the reader’s mind and get the story moving. Details can help, but unnecessary ones slow momentum.

I’ve taken the liberty of rewriting much in this sample. However, this is only one way of accomplishing what I suggest. Sherri will likely have another, better, idea.

Come and know me better!

Let’s compare two lines. Right after the fab opening in Sherri’s original comes this:

  • The command came from hospice nurse Susanna Larkin, somewhere between a hiss and barely controlled laughter.

It sounds like someone else is telling the story about Susanna, but I don’t know who. Right away there’s distance. Turn things around a bit and you have a completely different start.

  • Hospice nurse Susanna Larkin tried to make it a command, but the directive ended up somewhere between a hiss and barely controlled laughter.

Now the reader knows that the POV character is Susanna. This was accomplished by attributing action to Susanna. Once she’s established as the POV, Sherri can start to create Susanna by adding in character details. Meanwhile, the reader is in the room with the dead body.

Who is this woman?

I surmised Susanna is a take-charge woman and she’s friends with Elizabeth, who is clearly the flightier one. Note that in the edit we don’t learn Elizabeth’s name at first mention. This is because in that reimagined scene, Susanna, our POV character, would not refer to Elizabeth by her full name. But we do need the full name in there soon.

This provides another opportunity to characterize Susanna. When someone’s in trouble you use their full name, so I have Susanna trying to regain control by calling Elizabeth Ms. Mitchell.

  • “All we have to do, Ms. Mitchell, is carry her to the car,” Susanna said in a stage whisper, glaring at Elizabeth to stifle her giggles. “At least we don’t have to dig the grave, too.”

Doing this brings in more dialogue and the chance to get some of the scene setting out of exposition and into the character’s mouths. Remember, your opening needs to get the reader to care about the character. That can’t be done if the reader doesn’t know the character—hasn’t heard her speak.

Is this necessary?

When you want to include a detail, first think: Is this something my main character would think about or talk about in this scene? If yes, i.e., the green burial, find a way to include it that builds the reader’s idea of who the character is.

But if not, i.e., the specific site of the burial and the fact the grave is already dug, delete it. I have no idea if the story goes on and shows us the green burial, or if this is just a funny set piece to introduce the characters, but if Sherri does go on to show us the burial, we can learn where it takes place as the characters approach the cemetery.

See my edit, clean.

Sherri, thanks for submitting this piece to In The Edit. I enjoyed working with it and hope you carry on. Because you submitted, you are now eligible for a 25-percent discount on any of my editorial services.

If you would like to see your writing in a future In The Edit post, send a maximum of 350 words to opusmle (at) gmail (dot) com. Please send in Word format (.doc). You too can be eligible for a 25-percent discount.

On Thursday, we’ll look at another self-editing writing tip. See you then! Then on Saturday, drop by for a quick writer’s quote and to share what that quote means to you.

Michael Ehret, for Writing On The Fine Line

In The Edit: Deborah Raney

Today’s In The Edit is a little different. Today I want to show you, by using a Deborah Raney example, ways that a good editor can help you make the most of the articles you write as you’re building your platform or your freelance business.

But, I do want to caution you as well. While it is permissible to repurpose an article—even wise—you need to be careful to not plagiarize yourself, as agent Steve Laube shares in his blog.

Deborah Raney
best-selling author of After All

The key, as best-selling author Deborah Raney suggests, is that each of these pieces, though about the same subject (how to incorporate the six senses into your fiction writing), are revised and re-edited with the audience in mind and each publisher was aware the article had been used before in another form.

I was not the editor on all of these pieces, but I did edit the versions that appeared in the Christian Writers Guild’s WordSmith ezine and the longer version in the ACFW Journal.

The original

“This article has gained so much mileage it’s not even funny!” Deb said. “The original sold to RWR (the magazine of the Romance Writers of America) in 2004—eight years ago. At that time it was 2500 words.”

See Deb’s original, unedited. Sorry, I do not have the edited version.

Christian Writers Guild version

This year, Deb will be one of the featured instructors at the Guild’s Writing for the Soul conference at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs CO. When I was the editor-in-chief at CWG, one of the things we liked to do was feature the conference instructors in our publications.

I needed something from Deb for the April 2012 issue of WordSmith and she suggested a reworking of this piece because the principles in it would help our students improve their storytelling abilities.

I had not read the RWR version, but she told me it had been published in the longer version above eight years earlier.

Read the version she sent me—already edited by Deb to 680 words.

The problem? I needed 300 words at the most—and, because of the audience, I needed a strong educational focus. Plus there was a desire, obviously, to promote Deb’s appearance at the conference.

See what we ended up with. (Deb’s article is on page 4 of the newsletter.)

Once more, with feeling!

Finally (so far…), Deb is the author of the Self-editing column for ACFW Journal, the quarterly magazine I edit for the American Christian Fiction Writers organization. When it was time for her July column, she suggested we run this piece again—only this time we were able to reinsert some of the stuff we had to cut for WordSmith.

See the ACFW Journal version.

Now, here’s where you may be wondering if this article is reaching critical mass. It has appeared, so far, in three publications that cater to writers: RWR, WordSmith, and ACFW Journal. Is that overkill?

A couple important things to remember: All three of those publications are member magazines and therefore only available to members of the organization that publishes them. While it’s possible there are a few people who are members of two of the organizations—even three—that is a fairly small population and each version of the story is substantially different.

But wait…

So Deb’s done with this topic now, right? Not so fast. When publicizing her latest release, After All (the third in the Hanover Falls series), Deb was asked to do a guest post on the blog The Borrowed Book. Yep, by taking the same information and revisiting it with examples from her new book, Deb was able to share this great writing information with another audience and do some good marketing for her book.

Why share this? Because when you write a good article, it’s not necessarily one and done—sometimes it’s one-, two-, three-, four- and (maybe) done. Especially if you think in advance about the different ways you can use the information you have to share.

Deb, thanks for letting me tell your story In The Edit today.

Eye image (c) Ken Raney

I hope you’ll come back on Thursday for another writing tip and then stop by Saturday for a writing quote and a question.

If you would like to see your writing in a future In The Edit post, send a maximum of 350 words to opusmle (at) gmail (dot) com. Please send in Word format (.doc). If I use it, you’ll be eligible for a 25-percent discount on any editing services.

On Thursday, we’ll look at another self-editing writing tip. See you then! Then on Saturday, drop by for a quick writer’s quote and to share what that quote means to you.

Michael Ehret, for Writing On The Fine Line

In The Edit: Clarice James

In these posts, with the author’s permission, I look at their work pre-editing and post-editing—and at what I did to improve the piece. The idea is to catch a glimpse into not only the editing process, but the relationship between editor and author.

Clarice James

Today we have another 2011 Operation First Novel finalist, Clarice James, In The Edit. Clarice’s manuscript, Party of One, tells the story of a widow coming to terms with her new life. In this sample, which comes from Chapter 4, the protagonist is dealing with some pretty heavy emotional baggage.

Clarice handles this well. The emotions she shares seem real and, as a spouse who worries excessively about losing my wife, I was able to relate even though a man.

Clarice’s edit

See Clarice’s original.

I found three main areas to focus on in this sample:

  1. Extra words (always and forever)
  2. Enhancing the emotion/drama
  3. Over-making the case

Read my edit with track changes in place.

Trim, trim, then trim

If you’re a regular reader of these In The Edit posts, you know I always cut words. This is a key self-editing skill every author needs to learn and internalize. In most cases, with a few allowances for style and voice, if you can cut a word, do so.

Shorter sentences are powerful. They keep the reader moving and engaged in the story. An occasional long sentence of exceptional beauty—one that needs every word in it—offers the reader sweet, satisfying variety.

For instance, in paragraph 5, Clarice has her protagonist describing what life without a loved one is like by showing how the protag relates in everyday situations. It’s a powerful idea and it works. But there are extra words.

“Do you really believe your bad day at work compares with the fact that my husband is dead?”

In that sentence, I added really because it helped show the character’s state of mind, but I deleted at work and that because the previous sentence indicated the location and because that can almost always be deleted.

Dramatic intensity

While this sample already contains strong emotions, I thought there were ways to enhance them. In this scene, because Clarice chose to write it as her character talking in general (when this happens to you, then you experience this), it distances the reader just when you want to draw them in.

What I think works better is to have the protagonist share this section from her own point of view. This requires changing the focus from you to I. In other words, instead of A friend complains about her job and you outwardly sympathize, but what you think is… we get Now, when a friend complains about her job, outwardly I sympathize, but inside I’m thinking…. This makes it much easier for the reader to empathize with the character and gives the character more authority.

This is a significant change in approach. If I were really editing Clarice’s book, I’d want to chat with her about it to hear why she wrote it the way she did.

I get it, I get it

Writers have this passion for telling things in threes.

  • “Orlando loved Ginny. He loved her with a passion at once natural and unnatural. His love exceeded the mere bounds of human love and approached the divine.”

Instead of simplifying:

  • Orlando loved Ginny as a man, but also as a brother in Christ.”

It’s a natural fact that humans like threes, but sometimes we use the trick too often and rob it of it’s power or end up writing as Mr. Obvious, leaving nothing to the reader’s imagination.

In Clarice’s sample, she did this while trying to get across her protagonist’s mental state of mind following her husband’s death. First she had the co-worker complaining about the day she had at work. Then another co-worker shared about the movie she saw. Finally, the example of the waitress asking about the salad.

It seemed like too much. I changed it to come from the protagonist’s point of view, but after that it really screamed “too much!” to me. Of the three examples, the salad seemed the least evocative so I cut it. Now, combined with the point of view switch, the other two examples have more power.

One last note: You’ll see in yellow highlight where I ask Clarice a question. Her answer to that would affect the edit going forward from that place.

Read my edit clean.

Clarice, thanks for coming Into The Edit with me!

If you would like to see your writing in a future In The Edit post, send a maximum of 350 words to opusmle (at) gmail (dot) com. Please send in Word format (.doc). If I use it, you’ll be eligible for a 25-percent discount on any editing services.

On Thursday, we’ll look at another self-editing writing tip. See you then! Then on Saturday, drop by for a quick writer’s quote and to share what that quote means to you.

Michael Ehret, for Writing On The Fine Line

What’s All The Fuss About Passive Writing?

I’m on vacation this week and re-running a couple of my favorite posts. Enjoy!

Go to any writing conference or eavesdrop on any writer’s critique group (both great things for the practicing writer, by the way) and if you hang around long enough, the subject of passive writing will be discussed—and usually with the same conclusion:

It’s bad. To-be-avoided-at-almost-any-cost bad.

Well, you won’t get any argument from me that writing in passive voice is best avoided. But how do you avoid it if you’re not sure what it is?

Active voice

In an active sentence, the subject performs the action.

  • Example 1: Linda dances the samba.
  • Example 2: Bill Withers sings Lean On Me.

In the first example, Linda is the subject and she is dancing the samba, the object of the sentence. In the second, soul singer Bill Withers is the subject and he is singing the song Lean On Me, the object.

Passive voice

Passive voice gets it backward, making the object of the sentence into the subject.

  • Example 1: The samba is danced by Linda.
  • Example 2: Lean On Me is sung by Bill Withers.

Here, the subject has become “the samba” (or the song Lean On Me) and the focus of the sentence has shifted from Linda to the dance (or from Bill Withers to the song).

Prefer the active

Most times, active voice is better. Why? Several reasons:

  1. Active voice sentences use fewer words. “Linda dances the samba” is four words. “The samba is danced by Linda” is six.
  2. Who wants to use weak words? Words like is/am/are/was/were/being/been, etc., are dull. Strong writing includes concrete nouns, powerful verbs, and vivid adjectives.
  3. No one likes confusion. Passive voice is often confusing or unclear.

Is passive always bad?

You know how it is. Nothing in the English language is always—not even the long-revered serial comma. (Don’t get me started. That’s a subject for the future.) But it is good to remember that passive sentences aren’t incorrect. What is true, however, is that passive sentence construction is not the best way to express your thoughts since it is vague, awkward, and wordy.

For examples where passive voice is preferred, visit this page on Grammar Girl’s site.


I found this invaluable when learning how to write in active voice. Microsoft Word has a setting you can activate within the program’s Preferences menu that shows readability statistics. One of the stats it shows is how passive your writing is.

In fact, you can check a single paragraph or a single sentence for passivity with this tool, make changes, then check again to see if your change helped. This helps you learn to identify passive voice.

To use this tool on a Mac, open the Word menu then click on Preferences (or press Command and the comma key). Then select Spelling and Grammar. The tool is also available on PC. Just play around in the menus until you find it or search for it.

Under Spelling, check whichever options you prefer. Under Grammar, also make your choices, but to use the passive identification tool, tick the “Show readability statistics” box.

Then after you run the Spellchecker a box will appear showing several interesting statistics, including the percentage of passivity. If your file has passive writing, to find it repeat the process paragraph by paragraph until the readability statistics box indicates you’ve found a passive section. Then, if necessary, repeat the process sentence by sentence.

Is it perfect? No, but it is a fantastic educational and self-editing tool.

Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line

Samba image from

In The Edit: Ane Mulligan

I’m on vacation this week and re-running a couple of my favorite posts. Today Southern Fried Fiction author Ane Mulligan visits In The Edit. Enjoy!

In these posts, with the author’s permission, I look at their work pre-editing and post-editing—and at what I did to improve the piece. The idea is to catch a glimpse into not only the editing process, but the relationship between editor and author.

Ane Mulligan

Ane Mulligan

I’ve known Ane Mulligan, the author of Southern Fried Fiction, since 2004 when we both attended our first American Christian Fiction Writers conference. I had arrived a day early and was bored. We met when I followed the sound of her laughter to where she was volunteering. Yes, she roped me into volunteering as well. We’ve been friends since.

She is now the humor columnist for the ACFW Journal (The Nutty Novelist) and I have the pleasure of editing her columns each issue. Today’s post looks at her first ACFW Journal contribution, “A 12-Step Program for Writers.”

Ane’s edit

My prime directive as an editor is: “First, do no harm.” That means whenever possible, allow the writer his or her voice. But it is also my job to make the writer look good, to enhance the reader’s experience, and to fix errors.

In Ane’s column (see the unedited version), my main objectives were to:

  • Increase the connection to her main theme of writing as an addiction
  • Smooth out some areas by providing transition language
  • Since the ACFW Journal is primarily a teaching magazine, provide a clear break between the humor and reader application

Enhance theme

I took the approach that the column was an introduction Ane would give if she were at her proposed recovery program. So I changed the intro slightly to reflect that. Then, in the fourth paragraph, I added some language that seemed both funnier and more in line with the addiction theme.

In the fourth through sixth paragraphs, I wanted just a touch of desperation as Ane recounted how her addiction worsened. Up to this point, it’s all told in Ane’s first person voice. In the eighth paragraph, I enhanced her natural turn toward reader application. And in the 12 steps themselves, shifted completely to a “you,” or instructional, focus.

See the track changes version.

See the final version.

Ane, thanks for letting me use you as an example!

If you would like to see your writing in a future In The Edit post, send a maximum of 350 words to opusmle (at) gmail (dot) com. Please send in Word format (.doc). If I use it, you are eligible for a 25 percent discount on any editing services.

Michael Ehret, for Writing On The Fine Line