Monday, June 8, 2009

Passive Voice - How to Bore Your Readers or Not

Have you ever submitted a manuscript to an editor and one of the feedback lines, if you receive any, is that you need to remove most if not all passive voice sentences?

“Uh-hem.” Yes, that is me raising my hand, waving it in the air for all to take notice.

After doing some research, I found out that passive voice is the number one mistake new writers make.

“Well, gee, somebody should have told me that before I finished writing those 350 pages.”

Now you are sitting there on your sofa or in your desk chair wondering, “What is passive voice?”

Good question and here is the answer.

Passive voice defined: Passive voice, in writing, results from the overuse of the "to be" verbs: am, is, was, were, be, being and been. Passive voice lacks the SVO pattern of a sentence.

I know, I know. “What is the SVO pattern?”

SVO stands for Subject Verb Object pattern. A good, clear sentence follows this structure. The sentence begins with a Subject that performs an action, then a Verb, which is the action, and finally it has an Object that receives the action. (The object is not always there.)

Your head is still spinning so let me give you an example of a sentence with the correct use of SVO.

1. The car ran Jane over.
Subject = car, Verb = ran, Object = Jane

The following is bad SVO pattern, which results in passive voice.

2. Jane was run over by the car.
Subject = Jane, Verb = was, Object = Car

Close your eyes and visualize the word “was.” You can see nada, zero, and empty, completely blank. A reader will never be able to close his or her eyes and envision your passive verbs (for one cannot see "be" or a picture that goes with "is").

Here is your visual clue. Close your eyes and visualize the word “ran.” You can see someone lifting their legs, their feet hitting the pavement, and arms pumping.

Passive voice is “telling” and keeps your reader disengaged from your story. Often, it weakens a sentence by using more words than necessary. Just look at our examples above.

Your exercise:

Write and post 5 Passive Voice sentences. (Write them off the top of your head, pull some out of your own manuscript, or pull some out of a published novel.)

Let me get you started:

Kim was invited to a party by Raymond.

The Vikings were beaten by the Redskins in the playoffs.

My books were stolen by someone yesterday.

The pizza was eaten by the girls.

Allison was stunned by the actions of her classmates.


Ceri Hebert June 9, 2009 at 5:48 AM  

You did this especially for me, didn't you? LOL. Here are 5 sentences from my manuscript Forever Home

1)A storm was building out there.

2)This particular thunderstorm was grinding slowly across the land straight for them.

3)He was almost to the Forever fence line when he saw them

4)He saw Marisol was clutching her side

5)Jaycie was attempting to help her

Gina L June 9, 2009 at 1:55 PM  

We write like we speak and we speak with a passive voice. This is not easy to change -- or an easy lesson to learn.

1) She was slumped down in her chair.

2) If there was one thing he could do, it was teach a class.

3)Madison's foot was swinging back and forth, rocking the chair she was sitting on.

Are you cringing yet?

4) He was losing ground as a teacher.

5)Maddie was aware of where Bryan was at every moment.

Denise June 9, 2009 at 3:54 PM  

You all make me laugh!

This is the number one thing most authors do. . .at least initially. You do get better. Just ask my publisher!

Plus, I'll show you a few tricks.

And Gina, yes, I cringed at a few of them. :-)

Ceri Hebert June 10, 2009 at 5:39 AM  

So, is "had been" just as bad as "was"?

Denise June 10, 2009 at 5:53 AM  


Generally, the answer is yes.

Passive voice, in writing, results from the overuse of the "to be" verbs: am, is, was, were, be, being and been.

Been is not an action. That doesn't mean that it can't be used but it should be sparing and definitely see if you can come up with another word to describe what you want to say.


Nick June 12, 2009 at 2:38 PM  

Ceri and Gina, none of the ten sentences you contributed is in the passive voice! There's more to the passive than some form of the verb be, there's also (as Denise said) the departure from the SVO pattern.

To quote Joseph M. Williams, from the excellent Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace:

"In active sentences, the subject typically expresses the agent of an action, and the object expresses the goal or the thing changed by the action:

Active: The partners -> broke -> the agreement.
("The partners" is subject and agent; "the agreement" is object and goal.)

In passive sentences, the subject expresses the goal of an action; a form of be precedes a past participle of the verb; and the agent of the action may or may not be expressed in a by-phrase:

Passive: The agreement <- was broken <- by the partners.
("The agreement" is subject and goal; "by the partners" is prepositional phrase and agent.)"

You can recognise the passive by looking for some form of be followed by a past participle, optionally followed by a by-phrase.

Sometimes the form of be is implied and does not actually appear in the sentence; for example: "The advice given by the doctor was to exercise." This is in the passive voice, and contains an implied was: "The advice (that was) given by the doctor was to exercise."

The passive is sometimes the right choice and can improve emphasis and cohesion. See, for example: Passive Voice.

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