Writing tip: “could” be passive

Hey, kids–

Hope this week has started out well for you. Anyway, how about a quickie writing tip?

The word “could” sure gets a lot of (over)use. And what it tends to do is make your writing passive, especially when used in combination with some variant of the verb “feel.”


She could feel the pain in her ankle when her booted foot slipped off the rock.
Her booted foot slipped off the rock and pain lanced through her ankle, bringing tears to her eyes.

Do you see the difference? Better yet, do you feel it? That’s the key to showing and not telling. When you use the helping verb “could” too much, you’re pushing your reader out of your character’s head and telling her what your character felt, rather than allowing her to feel/empathize with her.

Another example:

He slowed down because he could see the road was wet, since it had been raining
Streetlights glinted off the rain-slicked road and he took his foot off the accelerator.

See that? We all know what a road looks like when it’s been raining. But it’s kind of blah, if you will, to tell us that with a “could” construction and, in the next phrase, using “it” to refer to the condition of raining. SHOW us with your words what that road looks like and what the driver might do. Most of us, if we’re not being chased by zombies, will slow our vehicles accordingly.

Author Lori Lake has a great piece on passive voice and words to watch out for right HERE. You can find part 1 of that article here.

Do a search in your manuscript to see how often you use these forms of the verb “to be”: is, was, are, had been, have been, be, become, could be, would be, could have been
(see Lori’s article at the link above)

Yes, you might be adding words to your count. But you’ll also enliven your writing and bring a reader into the story, rather than leaving her outside, with a barrier of passive word-age between her and the characters. I’ll come back to this later. Don’t worry.

In the meantime, happy writing and happy reading!

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