How to Use Active Verbs to Enhance Your Sentence Structure


Are you enjoying our 90 Second Writing Lessons? Lesson #3 just went up yesterday, so if you’re a little behind you can catch up on previous lessons here.

The downside of lessons lasting only a minute and a half is there isn’t much time to grab your attention, explain a concept in detail and give you plenty of examples to get the point across before (shamelessly) begging you to subscribe.

That’s the point: it’s supposed to be quick, so you can watch on-the-go. But we want to make sure you’re getting the most out of important concepts, especially related to grammar.

Using active voice often comes naturally, but it’s normal to let down your guard and let a few passive sentences slip in here and there without realizing it.

Regardless of what you’re writing, the more you utilize active verbs, as Lesson #3 points out, the easier sentences are to read and understand.

But what is the difference between active and passive voice?

There wasn’t enough time to cover this in detail yesterday, so we’ll do it for you here.

Passive Voice Emphasizes the Direct Object

For this remainder of post we will use the following sentence as an example:

Every book on the shelf has been read by Lia.

A brief grammar review: Lia is the subject. Read is the verb.

In a passive sentence, the direct object comes before the subject. In our example sentence, the direct object—the noun which the action is being performed on—is book.

Did you notice that passive voice above? Hard to read, right?

Passive voice requires us to add extra words we can eliminate by using passive voice.

Active Voice Puts the Subject First

In an active sentence, the subject performs the action. This requires us to put the subject and verb before the direct object. This also means we can eliminate been and by.

Lia has read every book on the shelf.

Putting the subject in front makes it clearer who is performing the action (verb). The books aren’t reading Lia. That would be awkward.

Why Use Active Verbs?

Writing in passive voice can make your sentences appear wordy and complex.

The original, passive form of our sentence, Every book on the shelf has been read by Lia, contains 10 words.

The revised, active form, Lia has read every book on the shelf, has eight.

Only a slight difference, but if you have multiple passive sentences on a page to start with, you can easily cut out a lot of unnecessary words.

The more straightforward you can be—subject performs action on direct object—the more your readers are likely to get the point. Adding an adjective in there (every book) shouldn’t change the clarity or simplicity.

Leave your subjects in their starring roles and your direct objects “to be acted upon.” Sometimes passive voice in dialogue does end up as the most natural arrangement—“Your book. It has been terminated. By me.”

Or, you know. Something like that.

But the majority of the time, active verbs are the way to go. When in doubt, put your subject first and rearrange the sentence accordingly.

See? Not so hard after all.

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.

When It’s Okay to Use Contractions (and When It Is Not)


“Do or do not. There is no try.”

Wouldn’t it have sounded weird if Yoda said “don’t” instead of “do not” when scolding Luke for even considering the possibility of giving up? This was a teaching moment, also flagged by the fact that he didn’t say it backwards for the sake of clarity. He needed to make sure Luke not only heard him, but also that he listened.

Contractions are a way to speed up sentences, both spoken and written. As time passes, it becomes much more common to see contractions seep into different forms of writing that used to shun them, like textbooks.

Because of this, it can be difficult to figure out when it’s acceptable to use contractions in your writing and when to leave them out. We have a guide that might help you figure out when it’s okay—and when it is not.

Professional Emails and Letters: Not Okay 

Some will argue whether or not you should use contractions in professional emails depends on your discipline or whom you’re writing to. Regardless of the situation, if you’re writing to your boss, sending out a query letter or emailing a co-worker, every professional on the receiving end of your message technically deserves the same “treatment” when addressed in writing.

Your safest bet is to stay away from contractions. Unless you’re just emailing pictures to your mom or checking in on your grandma, there’s no reason you shouldn’t keep your emails clean and free of unwanted apostrophes.

Creative Writing: Okay

In most of your creative writing, you’re going to encounter situations where dialogue makes up most of a scene. After all, this is how real life works: once a conversation starts, everything else in the room tends to fade out. Similarly, when writing dialogue, it’s important to keep it as realistic as possible. You don’t walk up to your friend and ask, “Hey, how is it going?” You shorten it. In most dialects, it’s natural.

Dialogue isn’t the only place in creative writing where contractions are allowed. If your prose is informal enough, your reader won’t be alarmed if contractions are a consistent part of the work.

Academic Writing: Not Okay

Contractions are a big N-O in most academic writing guidelines. When explaining a specific concept through this kind of formal writing, it’s important to come across as clearly and intellectually as possible. That often means going back and making sure you spell out your will nots and there ares. Even if it looks a little funny at first.

It’s easy to slip back into old habits. Nobody spells out their contractions on social media or text messages (if you even write full sentences at all). Use your “Find” function to check for any you might have missed. 

Articles and Blog Posts: Okay

Have you been counting the number of contractions in this post? It’s okay to use them in situations like this. People don’t generally come here expecting content to be all formal, all the time. Blog posts are especially green-lighted where contractions are concerned: blogs are meant to informally address an audience. Contractions are usually a go.

This might not be the case for professional websites or all online publications—always look at a site’s content before submitting a story or pitch to see if they follow any consistent rules regarding contractions. If you can’t find any patterns, it never hurts to ask.

Resumes and Cover Letters: Not Okay

This one is pretty self-explanatory, but a friendly (sorry, formal) reminder can’t hurt. Professionals in your field, future bosses, extremely important people potentially have access to your resume and cover letter as soon as you lay it in the hands of a company’s human resources department. Treat it like the president will see it, if that’s what it takes for you to remember to keep contractions out.

In a nutshell, use contractions in less informal writing circumstances, such as your blog, an article for a magazine or your own creative pieces. Avoid contractions in more formal settings, especially when writing to potential employers or potential business partners.

If you are going to use contractions, though, use them consistently throughout a single document. Don’t use “can’t” in one paragraph and spell out “cannot” in the next. As with any grammar or style rule, pick one method and stick with it. Credibility often relies on your ability to maintain consistency throughout your writing.

Do or don’t: it doesn’t have to be a guessing game.

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.

Three Ways You’re Sabotaging Your Credibility as a Writer (and How to Fix Them)


In doing research last night for an upcoming article, I discovered something soul-crushing: two websites whose copywriters and content editors allowed the use of “towards” on their web pages.

These were semi-credible organizations, not blogs or sketchy dot coms. I’m still in a state of shock that I came across not one, but two of these grammatical crimes in a row. Do you think I used anything I found on those pages for my article, or even finished reading them through? If you guessed no, you’re my new favorite person.

You might have great ideas, and the potential to make people really listen to what you have to say. If your writing shocks people the way these writers shocked me—and “shock” here is not used in a positive light, either—you’re not going to get very far. Here’s what you might be missing in your own online work, and you can do, as a writer, to make sure you’re not even unintentionally ruining your own credibility.

Infuriating the Internet’s Grammar Enforcement Squad

If you’ve been writing for a while—and hopefully, if you’re posting online, you have—you’re no stranger to basic grammar and style laws. Avoid starting sentences with because. Set an excellent example, not a awful one. However, based on my recent findings, it’s clear some rules are less commonly followed in the general online community, and in all honesty, you’re going to draw the wrong kind of attention from editors and the like if you’re not careful.

I can’t speak for all editors, but when I’m doing basic research and stumble upon an article or web page with obvious (to me) grammar mistakes, I hit the back button. I stop reading. This is neither good for you nor the publication, website or organization you’re writing for. Know the audience you are writing for and what style you should be following, then follow it. (Side note: AP Stylebook says, “toward, forward, afterward”).

Using Idioms and Clichés

Not to beat a dead horse … but really, don’t. You’re not in fourth grade English class anymore (and if you are, by all means, finish reading this and then get back to your essay—in time you will learn the ways of the Jedi, young padawan). I just read an article claiming clichés are “bad” writing and idioms are “good” writing. What? Please, if you agree with this statement, tell me. I’d love to hear your argument; at present I fail to see the merit in this.

There are certainly ways to incorporate idioms into your work to give it a little kick, but if you can avoid it, do so. It is very easy to slip them in without noticing, and for the most part, if you use one every once in awhile, no one will notice. If you start doing the tango with clichés, though, you’re going to lose a lot of readers. And if you’re not quite sure what the difference is between the two, I’ll write up a post in the near future that goes into detail. I would link to the article I found, but I’m just a little skeptical.

Empty Prose 

I may be the pot calling the kettle black (see? CRINGE!), but you can rack up a lot of words and pretty-sounding prose yet say absolutely nothing of value in an entire piece of writing. Let my work serve as proof that it can take a long time, and a lot of practice, to refine your writing skills. I’m still teaching myself how to reconstruct sentences to say more in fewer words. You might notice I still slip back into bad habits in these blog posts; if you want to call me out on it, kudos to you. I won’t be offended.

There are dozens of different ways to say the same thing in only several paragraphs, and it’s easy to repeat yourself without even realizing you’re doing it. Once you start tossing in too many adjectives and a generous portion of fluff (and not the good kind), your writing starts to lose its once delicious meaning. It’s important to learn how to shift your focus away from how a sentence sounds and more toward the meaning behind it before you go back and make sure it doesn’t sound … well, like a fourth grader wrote it.

Take the right steps toward establishing yourself as a credible writer. With so many people posting online today, it’s hard to know someone’s background and whether or not you can trust them to give you writing advice, or even if you should trust them enough to read your work. Paying attention to their writing can give you clues, but keep in mind they’re doing the exact same thing to you.

Market yourself as an intelligent and skilled writer. You’ll be amazed at where that takes you.

Love&hugs, Meg<3

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.

A recent graduate with a B.A. in English and a completed major in nutrition, currently seeking a graduate degree in health communication, Meg is a twenty-something workaholic with a passion for writing, coffee and dietetics. In addition to her status as an aspiring novelist and Grammar Nazi (and the mastermind behind this site), Meg is an editor for College Lifestyles magazine and a guest blogger for Food & Nutrition Magazine’s Stone Soup.  She is a seven-time NaNoWriMo winner and has written several creative pieces for Teen Ink magazine. Follow Meg on Twitter.

Three (Less Obvious) Reasons Grammar Matters


In honor of Grammar Day, Grammarly took to social media last week to ask followers why grammar really matters. “Bad grammar undermines credibility,” one Facebook user defended. “I like eating my family,” a Twitter follower declared – sarcastically, we hope – in response to an example of why, in some cases, Oxford commas “save lives.”

To show our appreciation for the grammatically correct way of life, we’re filling this week’s slot with three reasons grammar is important to the modern writer, and probably not ones you’ve heard before. Continue reading “Three (Less Obvious) Reasons Grammar Matters”

Three Words Everyone Keeps Misusing


Being an English major (or anything related) can save the human race. Because of us, there is hope.

And if you point out that my first sentence is passive, or that I started the next two sentences with “because” and “and,” congratulations. You’re hired.

Grammar Nazis everywhere now have a new world-salvaging task: to advocate for the grammatically challenged, since it appears no one is going to stop using the following words and phrases incorrectly. Ever.

Before you venture out into the unknown, arm yourself with the linguistic truth.

“Legitimately” and “Literally” Are Not Synonyms

Really? You “legitly” failed your math test? I think you mean you literally received a failing grade on it, because these two words are not at all the same thing. Something legitimate follows a set of rules, like a legitimate birth certificate. Something literal is exact, the opposite of a figurative statement. You are literally missing the point.

Something “Ironic” Is “Opposite”

Let’s pretend I’m talking with someone who absolutely hated contemporary young adult fiction (and if you do, you’re entitled to your preference). Situational irony would involve meeting them for lunch and walking up to the restaurant to find them reading The Hunger Games because they got bored waiting. While irony is often used to convey humor, something ‘funny’ isn’t always ironic.

Are We “Farther” or “Further” From Making Any Progress Here?

One refers to distance, while the other references moving forward. Can you tell the difference? It’s not that simple if you’re an abstract thinker (many writers are). It’s not unheard of to compare advancement to traveling a great distance. Someone moves farther down a sidewalk than you, but you’re further along in your college education than they are. Farther is a physical measure, while further is a less concrete term. (Sidewalk? Concrete? Hehe.)

Let’s build on this list. Comment with your “misused words and phrases” pet peeves. The first step to educating those less “grammatically inclined” is to know where we’re starting from. Together, we can save the English language.


Love&hugs, Meg<3





Pre-Novelization Depression

Let me be honest with you all: I’m not the best when it comes to making outlines.

That’s not actually what my novel outlines are—in other words, they’re probably not even outlines. They’re more like pages and pages of all my thoughts jumbled together in only a formation and organization that I can understand. My overuse of parenthesis would probably make you want to throw up. Literally. And, as always, I treat semicolons like periods and use them in pretty much every sentence. And I can’t spell for the life of me, most of the names of my characters are generic and boring, and when I summarize, I pick apart every single detail I possibly can, until it’s not even a detail anymore, but the detail’s details are details.

Say that five times fast.

I’ve learned in the past few months that outlines are very disappointing. They ruin some of the surprises in your story even you didn’t know were coming. They have you scrolling up-and-down until your finger hurts (have you ever thought about which finger you use to scroll with your mouse? I think I use my pointer finger, but I could be wrong) and you’re constantly going back and changing things. I HATE changing things. I hated every single minute I spent revising Reminiscence, and now Colleen has it, and has told me that she doesn’t plan on reading it anytime soon, even though she insisted on being the first one to take it from me and stuff it into her purse.

I just have to keep telling myself, “It’s okay, Meg. You’re gonna be okay.” Because the thing about novel plotting is, it’s never going to be as good as the actual story you actually write. The actual story you actually write is when you start painting with your words; you fill pages with descriptions you know some people will skip anyway and choke your readers with metaphors on every page. You change your beginning line seventy times a day, because you just can’t get it perfect. But you will. Maybe you’ll connect it to the end somehow, once you get there. But before the fun stuff has to come the work; the sadness.

We’ll call it Pre-Novelization Depression.

If you’re asking yourself the question “Why outline if it’s so horrible?” then stop. Don’t even go there. It’s like anything else you’ll ever do in your lifetime. You can’t go into a test without having studied (well, some of you may beg to differ, but stay with me, here). You can’t get on stage to sing a solo if you haven’t memorized the words. You can’t do an ice-skating routine at the Olympics without having practiced for hours upon hours upon hours before you get there. And just the same, you can’t start writing a novel without knowing where you’re headed. Because where you’ll end up is even more depressed, with an unfinished novel in front of you that you just can’t seem to figure out.

Outlining, novel-plotting—whatever you want to call it—is the hardest part of doing what I love the most (that’s writing, for those of you just tuning in). I hate planning out the details, figuring out what goes where, sticking substitute dialogue in parenthesis for myself to remember what I’m thinking at that exact moment, and second-guessing myself. No; Cindy can’t die at the end of the book without finishing her last journal. That would be too depressing, and too predictable. Yet what purpose does she serve, other than to tell Leah all these words of wisdom she’ll eventually apply to her situation later? What if I did add that subplot? Would people like it?

It’s a struggle and a fight. It takes me hours just to get through a few chapters at a time. And if you’re like me, you know how I feel.

But do you know what? There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. We’ll finish these outlines. And then, with our character profiles minimized at the bottom of the computer screen and our character sketches (horrible ones, if you gave up your dream of becoming an artist seven years ago like some of us) taped to the edges of our monitors, we’ll start writing. And that will end the Pre-Novelization Depression. We’ll come out of our funk, because all the planning is done. We won’t get stuck, because it’s all there. Along the way, we’ll come up with new ideas, but ones that make us happy, not sad. And we’ll write to our heart’s content.

Until then…let the plotting continue.

Love&hugs, Meg♥