Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Let's Get Aggressive with Passive Voice

By April Moore
Writers are often warned against using passive voice. All right, but what is it exactly? Well, they’re words that can act like little pests that infiltrate your manuscript and render it into a wordy mess. We’re told to “tighten up prose,” and get rid of extraneous words and phrases (often caused by passive voice).

Unleash the bug spray; it’s time for pest control.


Identify the targets:  “to be” verbs (is, am, are, was, were, has/have/had been, will be, will have been, being) followed by a past participle (words typically ending with “-ed.”). Passive voice is when the noun being acted upon is made the subject of the sentence.

It is believed by the author that an advance for the manuscript must be provided by the publisher.
Exterminate it: The author believes that the publisher must provide an advance for the manuscript.

It was earlier demonstrated that nervous breakdowns can be caused by negative book reviews.
Exterminate it: Therapists earlier showed that negative book reviews can cause nervous breakdowns.

Writing tips will be presented by Kerrie at the Conference.
Exterminate it: Kerrie will present writing tips at the conference.

Chances are you won’t have any trouble finding the biggest culprits of passive voice: “was” and his cohort “were.” They can infect a manuscript and before you know it, build a vast colony in every chapter.

He was driving down the street, hoping his instinct was wrong and that she was at home waiting for him.
Exterminate it: He drove down the street, and in spite of his instinct, hoped she sat at home, waiting for him.

“Was” is also easy to spot latching onto “-ing” words:

Dean was fly-fishing on Monday.
Exterminate it: Dean fly-fished on Monday.

Kerrie was eating chocolate while writing her article.
Exterminate it: Kerrie ate chocolate while writing her article.

Do the same with “were.”

They were walking to the bookstore and hoping to find their books front and center.
Exterminate it: They walked to the bookstore with hopes of finding their books front and center.

I should point out that not all passive voice is harmful (like Daddy Longlegs. Poisonous, yes, but because their mouths are too small to do damage to us, we’ll leave them alone).

If you want to emphasize the action, not the actor:

After brutal editing, the manuscript was accepted by the agent

To describe something where the actor is unknown or unimportant:

Every year, thousands of authors are diagnosed as having bestseller envy.

You should carefully consider each “to be” verb before allowing it into your manuscript; some can do more harm than others, and if too many get in, you’ll need an exterminator. Here’s a list of active verbs to keep handy to protect against pesky passive voice.

How do you ward off passive voice?

7 comments:

Jerry Eckert said...

I do a thorough all-the-way through edit with the only goal of killing passive constructions. Still I miss some which the MSWord readability stat calculation will then hit me over the head with.

Richard Keller said...

April, this is a fantastic post on we should, could, and would get rid of passive voice when we have been and had been using it in our writing. If I was a betting man, and I is, I feel you're up for a promotion to be delivered at the most earliest.

Chris J. Nugent said...

Yeah, April, I'm thinking a promotion to Assistant Director. ;)

Richard Keller said...

Yes, I agree. I ... wait. What?

April Moore said...

I'm liking where this is going!

John Paul McKinney said...

Not all instances of the use of various forms of the verb "to be" are passive voice. Many are verbs in a progressive tense. "Kerrie was eating chocolate" and "Dean was fly fishing" are simply past progressive tense.Now if "Kerrie was being eaten by the chocolate" that's a different story.

April Moore said...

That's very true, John Paul. That's why it's important to take the time to carefully consider "to be" verbs, because more often than not, their presence isn't necessary.

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