4 Ways to Remove Passive Voice from Your Paper

First of all, what is passive voice, and what’s so bad about it?

When a sentence is written with passive voice, it contains words like “were” “are” “is” “had” or “will be.” A sentence written in passive voice isn’t bad, but it doesn’t live up to its potential. By including these words, the writer takes the easy way out. He or she doesn’t have to spend time thinking of interesting or specific verbs, or writing in clear and concise language. It may be a time saver, but it will lead to a more muddled paper. Consider these two sentences:

1. Odysseus was a poor leader, which is shown by his refusal to listen to his men.

2. As a poor leader, Odysseus refused to listen to his men.

Or these two:

1. Women were unable to vote for decades after men were able to do so.

2. While men elected official after official, women dreamed of going to the polls themselves.

In both cases, the second sentence is stronger. In the first case, it is more concise, and in the second, it forced me to write a more interesting phrase.

When I taught elementary school, our coaches instructed us to have funerals for “dead verbs” with our classes. Our students created coffins for “is” and “was” and buried them on school grounds – that’s how strongly they felt about weeding them out of the students’ writing.

You may be looking at your most recent paper and noticing that almost every sentence contains “is” “was” or “were.” But how do you get these nasty, boring verbs out of there? Here are 4 methods to think about:

  1. Choose a different verb.

This is possibly the easiest method for removing dead or passive verbs from your writing. Just look at the sentence and think of a better, more specific verb to use.


The street was filled with fruit stands./The street heaved (burst, sagged, etc.) with fruit stands.

Mercutio was the most interesting character in Romeo and Juliet./ Mercutio stood out as the most interesting character in Romeo and Juliet.

The war was long – it lasted 8 years. The war continued for 8 long years.

2. Get rid of “ing”

If you look through your passive sentences, chances are you’ll see quite a few “was”s and “were”s followed by an “ing” verb. Just remove the “ing” and you will have a more active sentence.


She was walking home from school./She walked home from school.

The settlers were persecuting the Native Americans. /The settlers persecuted the Native Americans.

The prisoners were dying by the dozens every month./ The prisoners died by the dozens every month.

3. Move your adjective (describing word) before your noun.

Have you ever written a sentence like this? She was beautiful, cold, and unaware of his affections.

It is tempting to use a dead verb preceding a list of adjectives, or even just one adjective. Why not write it like this instead:

The beautiful, cold, and oblivious woman ignored the young man’s affections.

Other examples:

Martin Luther King Jr. was a great leader and a peaceful man who died in 1968. /A great leader and proponent of peace, Martin Luther King Jr. died in 1968.

William Shakespeare is one of the greatest writers of all time and was responsible for changing literature forever. /The brilliant William Shakespeare changed the face of literature forever.

4. Change the order of your sentence.

Sometimes, just switching the subject to the beginning of your sentence will get rid of your nasty passive verb.<



Jane Eyre was written by Charlotte Bronte./ Charlotte Bronte wrote Jane Eyre.

The Jews were put onto cattle cars by the Nazis. /The Nazis forced the Jews onto cattle cars.

The scarf had been left on the table by Margaret./ Margaret left her scarf on the table.


If you want to write with greater clarity and specificity, pay special attention to weeding out the dead verbs the next time you revise a paper. Use these four methods to eliminate almost all of them.

3 grammar websites you will love

Grammar consists of the nitty-gritty rules on how to write well.  Most of us don’t even know all of the rules, let alone remember to follow them on a consistent basis.  Yet, learning about fun things like how to use a semicolon correctly or how to break a sentence down into its parts can dramatically improve our writing.  Below, find 3 grammar websites that actually make following the rules fun.

The Write Practice Grammar Guide

Written by Liz Bureman, a fellow Denverite, this grammar guide will help you out with questions like when to use affect vs. effect, how to use an ellipses (…) correctly, and when to end a sentence with a preposition.  Each article is short, to the point, and enjoyable to read.

Grammar Girl

Grammar Girl’s tagline is “Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.”  That should give you an indication of the tone of the website.  Here, you can find topics such as when to use a comma versus a colon, a National Grammar Day Tale of Love, and word choice posts too numerous to count.  Each article is also available in audio format, for all of you auditory learners out there.

Daily Writing Tips

If you love grammar, you will love this website.  Every single day, they publish a new grammar tip or idea.  You can also look back into the archives for more ideas or to brush up on different grammar topics.  It even includes quizzes on different grammar topics, if you have that much time on your hands.

There you have them – my favorite grammar websites.  Go ahead, try them out.  Just don’t tell anyone. And if you still want someone to proofread your paper, email me.

Paper Writing for Mathematical/Logical Learners

Yesterday, I wrote a blog post briefly outlining all of the intelligences and some paper writing ideas for each type of learner.  For the next few days, I will go into more detail about each intelligence and list some ideas for tackling the paper writing process.

The mathematical/logical thinker is great at solving abstract problems.  They can easily do math problems in their heads.  They categorize things and wonder how things work.  They are likely to become doctors, engineers, mathematicians, and accountants.  Based on these career choices, these learners may not have to do as much paper writing as someone in the humanities, but who doesn’t have to take intro college English?

Some of my clients have told me they prefer math to writing because there is a specific set of steps and one solution at the end.  Writing is a messier process, involving lots of differing ideas and ways of approaching them.  However, I think that a similar approach can be taken with writing as with solving mathematical equations.

I’ll admit it – I am kind of a math geek myself.  When I was in school, I loved plugging numbers into formulas.  If you are mathematical thinker, look at your paper as a formula. A well written paper is a very logical piece of writing and should follow a basic pattern.  Download the PDF below for the formula for a well-written paper.

Paper Writing Formula

Another way you can look at paper writing is that all of the ideas and sources are parts of the equation, and your thesis statement is the solution to that equation.  Writing the paper is just like writing a mathematical equation, only now, the parts of the equation are words instead of numbers, and the solution is mentioned in the introduction and the conclusion.


How not to use the word “they” in a paper

Of all of the grammar mistakes I’ve seen my students make, using the word “they” incorrectly is the most common.

When you are writing an academic paper, NEVER follow a singular subject in the beginning of a sentence with the word “they” in the second part of the sentence.  Here are a few examples of how NOT to use the word “they”:

1. When a student doesn’t understand an assignment, they might just need to hear it in a different way.

2. When a person becomes a victim of sexual assault, they can access many resources.

3. If a goalie wants to effectively block a shot, they should put complete focus on the ball.

Why are these sentences wrong?  

The beginning of the sentence refers to a singular subject.  In the second part of the sentence, the writer refers to that one person as “they”.

Why do students love to do this?  

In many essays and papers, it is considered incorrect to assume one gender or another for a subject.  For example, in the third sentence, the goalie could be a male or a female.  The word “they” could refer to either gender, thus avoiding any sexist stereotyping.  However, “they” is also grammatically incorrect.

How can you correct this mistake?

One method is replacing “they” with “he or she”. This sounds a but awkward at times, but avoids gender stereotyping while maintaining a grammatically correct sentence structure.

In many papers, it seems like we have to repeat “he or she” over and over, making the writing seem a but clumsy or choppy.  In that case, it is just as correct to change the singular subject to a plural one:

If goalies want to effectively block shots, they should put complete focus on the ball.

By changing the subject to a plural word, “goalies,” and modifying the rest of the sentence, the writer can avoid using “he or she” and also have a correctly worded sentence.

If you are editing your paper for grammatical errors, notice how you used the word “they.”  Make sure that anytime you wrote it, you were referring to a plural subject.  If not, use the above hints to change your paper.

2 Questions to Ask Yourself When Reading Assignments

Knowing how to write “A” quality papers may seem like navigating a complicated labyrinth at times,  but really, all the clues you need to be successful can usually be found in your assignment.

When reading a paper assignment, look for the answers to two key questions:

1. What is my professor trying to find out about me as a student by assigning this paper?

You professor assigned this paper for one purpose: to learn about you as a student.  Think about the context of the paper – what are the key learnings you have been focusing on in class?  Look at your syllabus for the main objectives of the course.  Is this paper assigned primarily to test your abilities as a writer?  Or is the greater purpose to determine if you understand course material?  What is the material you need to prove you’ve mastered?

Did your professor give you a rubric?  If so, use it!  By following all of the requirements on the rubric, you are practically guaranteed to get a good grade.

If all else fails, you can even ask your professor, “What are you trying to learn about me as a student from this paper?” He or she will probably be impressed and hopefully tell you exactly what you need to aim for in your paper.

The key to getting an A on your paper is giving your professor what he or she wants.

2. How long will it take me to write this paper?

In order to determine the amount of time you will need to spend writing your paper, look at the required length of the paper.  How many sources will you need?  How in depth do you need to go into your subject matter?

Once you have a clear idea of the length of time you will need to write the paper, immediately schedule times for writing it into your calendar.  While knowing what your professor is looking for will point you in the right direction, planning ahead and giving yourself enough time will ensure that you are able to reach your destination of an A quality paper.

In summary, if you know exactly what your professor wants in an A paper, and you give yourself enough time to write it, you are much more likely to succeed in getting a high grade on your paper.

3 Research Habits That Will Save You Time

1.Read the abstract first.

If you are looking for scholarly articles on a topic, don’t read the articles until you’ve looked over the abstract and made sure that this article fits in with your intended subtopics.  Don’t fall into the trap of using any article as a resource just because it vaguely relates to your topic.  You will waste time that could be better spent reading the right articles.

2. Type quotes as you go.

If you find a quote that you think you can use in your paper, type it into your outline under the appropriate subtopic. Make sure to note the author and page number.  By the time you get to the writing stage of your paper, you will already have relevant quotes ready to go.  You won’t have to waste time going back and finding them. This will also help you solidify your thesis statement.

3. Site your sources as you find them.

I remember getting to the end of papers in high school and having to go back through all of my sources and create a works cited page.  By that point, I was so done with my paper that it felt tortuous to do this last step.  Don’t make it your last step – do this as you go.  Whenever you realize you will use a certain source in your paper, immediately add it to your works cited page.  That way, when you are done writing and revising your paper, you won’t have to worry about it.

For extensive guides on citing in APA and MLA styles, follow the links below:

Purdue OWL APA

Purdue OWL MLA

Change a few words in your paper and sound more like an academic expert

I was recently helping a client revise his master’s thesis paper, and I realized that many of the changes we made involved replacing basic words with more academic vocabulary. Just by changing a few words, you can dramatically improve your paper. Below, find an incomplete list of words with their more academic-sounding counterparts.

better – more effective
said – noted, explained, stated, indicated, acknowledged
shows – indicates, demonstrates, identifies, displays
use – utilize
part – component
before – previously
try – attempt
way – method
gives – provides

Do you have any more examples? Feel free to include them in the comments section below.