The Active Word Checklist

“Keep your prose active.” It’s one of the most well-known pieces of writing advice and one of the most frustrating.

Sometimes when writing, especially when you’re first starting out, you have no idea what words are making your prose non-active. You’re just writing, using the words that sound right.

It’s not until you see the difference creating an active voice makes to your story that you understand why it’s a tried-and-true recommendation. Take the following sentences, for example…

Non-Active: Sarah’s fingers fumbled in her skirt pocket, trying to reach for her cell phone.
Active: Sarah’s fingers fumbled in her skirt pocket for her cell phone.

Non-Active: The fire at the entrance had reached one of the glass doors and was turning it black.
Active: The fire at the entrance reached one of the glass doors, turning it black.

Non-Active: When her gaze crossed the entrance, she could see someone standing in the middle of the two trees.
Active: When her gaze crossed the entrance, someone was standing in the middle of the two trees.

Do you see the difference removing only a few words can make? Do you want to do the same for your own sentences?

The Rules

Use your Find/Search function to dig through your MS for the following words.

  • If your sentence makes sense without the word – Delete it
  • If the word adds clarity/works – Keep it
  • If deleting the word makes the sentence confusing – Rewrite the sentence


The Active Word Checklist

Appeared
Began
Begin
Begun
Believed
Considered
Could
Decided
Did
Does
Feel
Felt
Had
Has
Have
Heard
Hoped
Knew
Looked
Maybe
Might
Noticed
Possibly
Prayed
Probably
Realize
Realized
Saw
Seemed
Seems
Smelled
Start
Started
Thought
Tried
Trying
Was
Watched
Understand
Were
Wondered

Active Word Phrases

Could feel
Could hear
Could see
Could smell
Had been
Has been
Have been
The feel of
The smell of
The sound of
Tried to


By taking a hard look at these words, assessing each one, and either keeping, deleting or rewriting, you can make your prose easier to understand, flow better, and create impact—which is something most writers can agree is a goal worth striving for.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the checklist series. If, like me, you’ve been using The Delete Checklist and The Weak Work Checklist to take your drafts to the next level, let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear your feedback.

Until next week, happy writing. For more writing tidbits and endless photos of my laptop screen, you can find me on Facebook and Instagram.

— K.M. Allan

47 thoughts on “The Active Word Checklist

    1. Thanks for reading. I have a social media series in the archives, and will take on board your suggestions about promotion. I write the blogs based on what I’m currently doing, and I haven’t really gotten to that stage yet. Good luck with your blogging!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. This is such a perfect blog post trilogy of epic proportions! You know where I’m at right now with my edits, and as I said on your previous post, I’m going to sit down with your checklists after this edit and tick, tick, tick my way to a better manuscript. I know I am guilty of a lot of these, and I hope many more writers discover these checklists, because they’re super helpful! 😀 x

    Liked by 3 people

  2. A great list and good advice. There’s a lot of writing out there that’s wishy-washy and needs to be tightened. Though I disagree about “had”, at least in the example given here. The difference between “the fire had reached” and “the fire reached” is one of tense/time, not activeness. If I am jumping into a point in the narrative where the fire has already reached the location in question and is doing something new, the second “active” example doesn’t work. Likewise, the second “active” example implies that the action of turning black is complete, whereas the first suggests the blackening is ongoing. Different meanings. I only say this because I’ve received such advice from editors before, a focus on “active” words rather than clear tense. I think a better fix for this example would be to drop the “reached” part all together and just say “the fire was turning the wall black,” as it is implied here that the fire reached the wall. Just my two cents.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Pingback: How to rewrite with more impact – Jean's Writing

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