Tag Archives: active voice

The eight forms of “be” #amwriting

It can take me several years to get a novel out of my head and into print. I write, rewrite, consider it done, and rewrite it again. Why does it take so long to write even a short story? How is it that I can write a short story in a day or two but work on it for years, trying to get it just right?


I always begin with an excess of prose—don’t ask me why. It just is.

When I begin a project the words fall out of me in the form of “writers’ shorthand.”

I “tell” myself the story.  Then, after it has sat for a while, I have to take each instance of hokey clichés, lurid description, and nonessential background information and rewrite. All of that bad writing is, for me, a framework to hang the real story on.

I make radical, surgical changes. Sometimes it takes three or four completely new versions of a story before the one that really works emerges.

A few substantive things that might change in the revision process:

  • Character names.
  • Place names.
  • Which character the protagonist actually is.

These changes happen because of logic—if the plot isn’t logical, the story fails.

But also, the prose will undergo major surgery.

I mentioned that a first draft is a “telling” draft. The prose in that draft has to be reshaped so it is a “showing” draft. The big bugaboo my writing group helps me most with is my tendency to not see the passive phrasing in my own work. The area I am working on improving right now is my reliance on the forms of “be.”

Did you know there are eight forms of the word be? I use all of them too regularly, which creates passive phrasing that is seriously difficult for me to detect. Finding and rewriting passive prose is why all my work takes so long to get into its final form. Fortunately, I have a writing group to help me down that path.

These verb forms are insidious because they are necessary. We can’t write without them. However, they are easy to rely on. We can overuse them to tell ourselves the story. In doing so, we  create prose that holds the reader slightly away from the story, making them an observer rather than a participant.

Some literary fiction is written to intentionally make the reader an observer of the human condition. This is work that requires the reader to think about the ideas and events, perhaps even to learn something. Readers deliberately seek out this kind of literature because it is challenging to read.

However, genre work is intended to be an immersive adventure, with active prose that draws the reader into that world. The reader must see the world and the events as if they are the protagonist. Through active prose, the reader becomes a participant. They may learn some things about the human condition, but they won’t consciously realize it and didn’t seek it out.

So, now you know what I am working on improving in my writing journey. The ability to write active prose in a first draft is one some of my favorite authors were born with. Others, like me, must develop it and sometimes it takes me four or five drafts before it’s done right.


Filed under writing

Voice, passive or active? #amwriting

What is the passive voice? What is the active voice? In this case, we are talking about how a story is told.

Passive voice offers separation from the action. The reader becomes a witness to the events, rather than a participant. This voice can produce unclear, wordy sentences if an author isn’t careful. Using the active voice produces clearer, more concise sentences.

Consider the simple act of and elderly woman mailing a letter. Perhaps the letter tells her niece the truth about a family secret.

In the passive voice, the subject (the letter) is not active but is acted upon by the verb, or passive (dropped, was mailed). It is a telling mode: Georgia stopped at the mailbox on the corner. She opened the slot and dropped the letter in. Turning, she walked home. The letter was mailed—there was no changing it now. Georgia sat on the porch, contemplating the wisdom of having done so.

The letter was mailed–Georgia performs the only action, and her thoughts are the important part. In literary fiction, the author might want the reader’s attention on the Georgia’s internal journey. Passive delivery is less straightforward, leaning toward allegory and symbolism rather than action.

Georgia stopped at the mailbox on the corner. She opened the slot, watching as the letter fell in. Turning, she walked home and sat on the porch, unsure if she had done the right thing. Most readers of genre fiction, such as mysteries, romance, and sci-fi, want active prose as they want to be involved in the action. In the active voice, the attention is still on Georgia, but the letter is active–it falls in. It does something.

Sometimes we combine the two and don’t realize we’re doing so: Georgia stopped at the mailbox on the corner and opened the slot, watching as the letter fell in. Turning, she walked home, unsure if she had done the right thing. The letter was mailed—there was no changing it now.

How we combine active and passive phrasing is part of our signature, our voice. By mixing the two, we choose where to direct the reader’s attention.

We want to avoid wordiness. Overuse of forms of to be (is, are, was, were) leads to wordiness. Long, convoluted passages turn away most readers.

In a writer’s forum I frequent, a frustrated author said, “My editor keeps hijacking my manuscript. She won’t let me use ‘there was,’ but I don’t know how to tell my story without using it.”

She wasn’t trying to rewrite his story for him. What his editor was trying to do was encourage him to use an action verb in place of a form of to be.  Acted, as opposed to acted upon.

In my own work, I go on a search and destroy mission, looking for weak words and timid phrasing. Adverbs frequently contribute to excessive wordiness and passive phrasing, so I do a global search for the letters “ly.” Sometimes my manuscript will become a mass of words with yellow highlighted “ly’s.”

When it comes to adverbs, most often simply removing and replacing them with nothing strengthens the prose. But having said that, don’t be an idiot and remove every adverb—use common sense. It’s a daunting task, but I look at each adverb and see how they fit into that context.

These are the words to watch for and reconsider how you have used them:

Weak prose tells the story, holds the reader away from the immediacy of the experience. Passive voice also tells a story, but when done well, it isn’t weak–done well it can be beautiful and immersive.

Take Erin Morgenstern’s beautiful fantasy, The Night Circus. It’s a perfect example of passive voice blending with active. The novel is also a lightning rod of sorts, polarizing readers. Genre fantasy purists decry her lush, beautiful prose, and lack of direct conflict between the two magicians, while readers of literary fiction enjoy her lush, beautiful prose, and the deeper story that underlies the politely wage war between two magicians.

Poetry is often written in the Passive Voice. This gives the author the opportunity to apply rhythm and cadence to her words.

A good writing exercise is to take a short paragraph and write it in both the passive and active voices. You can learn a lot about how you think as a writer when you try to write in an unfamiliar style.


Filed under writing

#amwriting: the author’s voice

The sense of style steven pinkerAnyone who is a member of a writing group is regularly beaten over the head with certain basically good, but occasionally clichéd, rules. Improperly applied, this mindless interpretation of proper grammatic style can inhibit an author’s growth.

These rules are fundamentally sound, but cannot be rigidly applied across the board to every sentence, just “because it says so in Strunk and White.” I rely on the Chicago Manual of Style, but I also understand common sense.

English is a living language. As such it is in a continual state of evolution and phrasing that made sense one-hundred years ago may not work well in today’s English.

We may be writing a period piece, but we are writing it for modern readers.

You can split an infinitive: it is acceptable to boldly go where you will.

You can begin a sentence with a conjunction if you so choose. And no one will die if you do.

Stephen Pinker discusses many rules in his controversial book, The Sense of Style, and finds that some of them no longer make sense.

For example, Pinker points out that “The prohibition against clause-final prepositions is considered a superstition even by the language mavens, and it persists only among know-it-alls who have never opened a dictionary or style manual to check.” 

He notes that rigidly following “the rules” would have you doing silly things like turning “What are you looking at?” into “At what are you looking?”  I don’t know about you, but for me the first example is preferable.

In the example, the word at is a preposition, and placing it after looking makes it a clause-final preposition.  Such a construct is technically a no-no, but I suggest you break that rule.

Stardust, Neil GaimanWe are constantly told that we need to make our verbs active, rather than relying on passive constructions, and for the most part, this is true. But Pinker reminds us that “The passive is a voice and not a tense.” There are times when the use of passive phrasing is appropriate.

Consider the difference between ‘the cat scratched the child’ and ‘the child was scratched by the cat.’  The second sentence is written in the passive voice, and in this context the active voice is the one I would choose because it is simpler and less fluffy.

Pinker agrees with me that there are contexts in which the passive is preferable. Quote from The Sense of Style: “Linguistic research has shown that the passive construction has a number of indispensable functions because of the way it engages a reader’s attention and memory.”

And in writing, context is everything. 

For most genre work, editors push for active voice, but truthfully, mainstream fiction and literary fiction can use the passive voice and still sell boatloads of books. Some of the most beautiful prose out there in genre fantasy mixes passive voice in with the active, and when done right  it is immersive.

name of the wind -patrick rothfussPatrick Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind is one example, and Neil Gaiman’s Stardust is another.

These books are best sellers because both Rothfuss and Gaiman understand how to craft prose that mingles passive and active phrasings, drawing us into their work. They choose when to use passive phrasing, and apply it appropriately so the narrative is a seamless blend of properly constructed sentences chosen to reflect their distinct voices.

The modern prohibition against passive phrasing exists for a reason: improperly and excessively used, the passive voice can weaken your narrative.

Knowledge of grammar and sentence construction is critical if you are an author: Sloppy grammar habits show that your work is badly crafted.

Your voice is the way you habitually phrase things despite your vast knowledge of how grammar is correctly used. Take a look at the great authors: Raymond Chandler, Ernest Hemingway, F.Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce: these authors each had such a distinctive voice that when you read a passage of their work, you knew immediately who you were reading.

They ALL broke the rules in their work and were famous for doing so.

Raymond chandler quote split infinitivesHowever, they understood the rules they were breaking and broke them deliberately and selectively in the crafting of their narrative.

Imagine a story set in an expensive restaurant. This story revolves around a marriage that is disintegrating. The couple, Jack and Diane, dine in silence. The food is important, but only because of what it represents. How do you convey this?

The steak was well-prepared and melted in Jack’s mouth. Nevertheless, Diane wielded her knife like a surgeon, cutting her meat into tiny, uniform chunks, chewing each bite slowly before swallowing. Jack imagined her carving his heart similarly, chewing it carefully and then spitting it out.

800px-Night_Sky_Stars_Trees_Quote“The steak was well-prepared and melted in Jack’s mouth” is written with a passive voice, and that is okay. The important thing is Jack’s observation of Diane and her mad knife skills. You don’t need to say “The chef had prepared the steak perfectly.” Unless he is having an affair with Jack or Diane, the chef who prepared the tender steak is not important and doesn’t need to be mentioned.

Steven Pinker has some words of wisdom for would-be editors: “It’s very easy to overstate rules. And if you don’t explain what the basis is behind the rule, you’re going to botch the statement of the rule—and give bad advice.”

Knowing what the rule is and why it exists allows you to choose to break it if that is your desire.

Writing style is a combination of so many things. It is how you speak through your pen or keyboard. Craft your prose with an eye to what is important to your story, and say it with your voice. With that said, your voice should not be so distinct and loud that it makes your prose obnoxious. A good editor will understand the difference and guide you away from bad writing, helping you find your voice in such a way that your work will be a joy to read.


Filed under Fantasy, Publishing, writing