Third  in an Occasional Series: Stephen King’s “On Writing”

In the late 1990s, the New Yorker serialized Stephen King’s memoir about writing (appropriately titled “On Writing”). The series was wildly popular, and was published in book form in 2000, going on to sell more than 500,000 copies.

In this space, we will periodically share snippets from the book that we think hold particular interest for memoirists.

Verbatim from “On Writing”:

Verbs come in two types, active and passive. With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen. You should avoid the passive tense.

Use Active Verbs in Memoir Writing

Imagine you are writing about the first time you saw the person who turned out to be the love of your life. Which of these sentences do you think is more compelling?

  • The experience of seeing Rob for the first time will never be forgotten by me (passive tense)

  • I will never forget the moment I first saw Rob (active tense)

Pretty easy choice, right? The first sentence lacks emotional punch and is tortuously constructed to boot.

Passive verbs have their place, notably in scientific writing where the action itself is more important than the person performing the action.

An example:

  • The solution was heated to 90°C for approximately 30 minutes and then allowed to cool (passive tense)

  • We heated the solution to 90°C for approximately 30 minutes and then allowed it to cool (active tense).

Both versions work equally well, and the passive tense sentence is shorter by one word, which is a good thing.

But memoir writing is personal and emotionally evocative; nothing like scientific writing. So use the active tense!

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