6.20.2009

Allison's Most Frequent Edits: Part 2 - Passive Voice

Passive Voice is perhaps the most common and most insidious style issue facing a writer, and it is my most-made non-grammatical edit on almost any manuscript I read. Even the best of us will occasionally obscure the subjects of our sentences by turning them into objects. I am guilty of it from time to time, though I like to think I do it less now than I did in my earlier writing days. Still, it is very easy to fall into, and you may find a good bit of it in this blog. It takes practice to find it and to avoid it, but hopefully this will help the frequent offenders start writing better stories and even possibly avoid the rejection pile.

Some of you may have no idea what I am talking about (yet), because high school grammar classes or college Writing 101 classes seldom mention passive voice, what it is, and why you should try to avoid it. It is something you will not usually encounter until you read a book about creative writing or you get edited for the first time by someone trained to look it. So what is it, then?

In English, we can write sentences with an active or passive voice. In active voice, the subject of a sentence performs an action. In passive voice, the subject of the sentence is acted upon. Passive voice is problematic because it dilutes your subject and makes for loose, wordy sentences. In writing--particularly storytelling--one of the first principles to which every author should adhere is: Avoid Unnecessary Words. When relating your ideas, it is important to think of every word you use and ask yourself whether you're making an impact and speaking with authority. Avoiding the passive voice helps with this.

It may be easier to show this through examples. The offending passive voice construction is in bold:

 Passive Voice: The party will be paid for by the Red Hat Society.
 Active Voice: The Red Hat Society is funding the party.

Certainly, the passive voice example isn't wrong. It carries an air of formality. I am sure you've seen similar sentences on party invitations, fliers, and other venues where people believe such a construction lends an air of sophistication. However, it's almost always a good idea to drop the passive voice and just say what you need to say. The Red Hat Society is funding the party, already!

In some passive voice sentences, the subject and the object appear to be the same, but in reality, the subject is "off-camera."

For example: The vase had been broken.

How do you fix this? That depends. Are you intentionally trying to hide the perpetrator of the broken vase from the audience? Is the story specifically about the some magical vase with a genie inside, broken by a shadowy, irrelevant figure?

If not, bring the actor to the forefront and say: Bob broke the vase.

Now, you're not only in the active voice, and exhibiting a tighter sentence, but we now have something a little more interesting to do with this broken vase in our imaginations when we can see Bob breaking it. After reading these examples, you may recognize instances of the passive voice in your own work and want a quick and easy method for finding and fixing it.

There is a simple formula for identifying passive voice. It often takes the form of a passive verb (am, is, was, were, has, being, been) plus a past-tense participle: is done, am chastised, was hit, were called, has eaten, being beaten, been broken... 

In many cases, the word "by" plus the subject is a big tip-off that you're operating in the passive voice. "I was chastised by my friends" as opposed to "My friends chastised me." Not surprisingly, politicians and lawyers use the passive voice more frequently than anyone. Legal contracts or political speeches will inundate you with the stuff. Politicians in particular are savvy at it when they want to avoid taking responsibility for something.

For instance, if a candidate wants to remove the spotlight from himself in a rural county after voting for a firearm restriction, he might say: "The law was passed by the Senate" because it takes the emphasis (and the responsibility, at least in a psychological sense) off of him and puts it on the "Senate." However, if he wants to boast about this gun law to a more favorable audience, he might say: "I voted to pass a gun law in the Senate." If anything, this demonstrates how the passive voice can not only lengthen but change the psychological effect of a sentence. In other words, if you don't want to talk like a lawyer or an evasive politician, ditch the passive voice.

Sometimes the passive voice is unavoidable and even useful. If you really want to emphasize the object of your sentence and the "actor" is irrelevant, then passive voice becomes necessary. "The knife, with its magical, inlaid runes and a haft made of human bone, was used in the goat's sacrifice." However, unless you are making a conscious artistic statement by trying to obscure the subject of your sentence, it is best to stick to the active voice. It has a positive, if implicit, effect on your readers, and it makes prospective editors and agents even happier to see writers who can convey ideas with clarity and authority.

3 comments:

  1. Allison,

    I also see a lot of passive voice in work I edit.

    In fact, I no longer edit academic papers because they bore me so much. Passive voice, obtuse language, and formal writing combine to make the work tiresome.

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  2. Great post.

    Taking your politician example a bit further - I assume it's okay to use passive voice in dialogue, particularly if you want to emphasise a weasel-ly or meek persona.

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  3. Lillie -- I edited a lot of academic papers in college, and it was far more exhausting. I think because it also requires a stricter attention to organization, and if the student's ideas are ill-organized, it makes for a really arduous chore.

    Anton -- Yeah, or pompous. lol I always take style and grammar issues in dialogue with a grain of salt, since it could be totally within the context of the character. So long as it doesn't sound hollow or stilted, I'm game. :)

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