Tag Archives: Passive voice

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.

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Weak Prose vs Passive Voice

Book- onstruction-sign copyI read voraciously, and I read in many genres. I love books written with passion, but I don’t always love passionate writing. By that I mean—be crafty with your how you deliver your descriptions, because I don’t want to be told what to think.

In various writing forums I regularly see authors complaining that Beta Readers don’t understand their ‘voice.’

Several things could cause that disconnect:

  1. The person who agreed to Beta Read for you does not read your genre, and genuinely does not like the kind of books you write. This happens all the time, so find a reader who enjoys romantic, urban fantasy, if that is what you write. A woman who reads hard sci-fi likely won’t love a fantasy-romance involving elves and vampires.
  2. Also, perhaps the person reading as a Beta Reader does not understand that Beta Reading is NOT picking a manuscript to shreds, it is giving general opinions on the manuscript as a whole. This is why I am selective as to who I share a manuscript with—the reader must be familiar with and read my genre, and understand the rules for Beta Reading, as set down by Orson Scott Card.
  3. We also must consider the possibility that we are mistaking lazy writing habits for voice. We love our glorious, elegant prose, but our reader was not as impressed. I hate it when that happens!

I had a conversation with an author who said, “My editor wants to change my voice. She won’t let me use ‘there was,’ but I don’t know how to tell my story without using it.”

She was not trying to change his voice, she was trying to encourage him to be creative and to write strong sentences.  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 can be beautiful and immersive.

What is passive voice? I absolutely adore this paragraph from the American Bar Association website article “Writing Clear and Effective Legal Prose” by George D. Gopen:

“Lawyers cannot write sophisticated, powerful prose without a skillful use of the passive voice. I could offer you a theological proof: God would not have created the passive had it no use. Or perhaps you might prefer the Darwinian argument: The passive could not have survived unless it was fittest for something. But I prefer this circular reasoning: The passive is better than the active in all cases in which the passive does a better job than the active. It only remains to learn what those cases are.”

Notice how he meanders through that thought, but eventually arrives at the point? He never devolves into weak prose. This is also the way many new authors approach writing genre fiction, and is where they run afoul of their readers. Readers of genre fiction expect lean, action-oriented prose driving each scene toward a final conclusion.

So now we come to another point—what is GENRE FICTION? Modern genre fiction avoids passive voice, opting for active, pared-down sentences that have one purpose—resolving a conflict. Literary fiction often uses passive voice, but knows how to apply it correctly. Literary fiction takes the reader on a journey, often where they witness events as seen through other eyes. Both styles of writing have to be carefully crafted, and both must immerse the reader in the experience. Stephen Petite, in his article, “Literary Fiction vs Genre Fiction” says:

“An argument can be made that there are two types of fiction when it comes to novels: Genre Fiction and Literary Fiction. The former includes many subcategories such as Mystery/Thriller, Horror, Romance, Western, Fantasy, Science Fiction, etc. The latter is more difficult to classify or break apart into subcategories. To put it simply, Literary Fiction is anything that does not fit into a genre.”

The fact that literary fiction is anything that does not fit into a genre offers authors the option of writing in a more leisurely style, if that is their desire. However—do not mistake bad craftsmanship for literary style.

I read genre fiction for entertainment, for a riveting story, an escape from reality.

Literary fiction is not about escaping from reality. It seeks to better understand the world and delivers real emotional responses, often though situations that are rooted in fantasy. I often read and enjoy literary fiction.

the night circus by erin morgensternDo you see the crossover there? Some fantasy qualifies as literary fiction because of the way in which the story is delivered. Erin Morgenstern’s beautiful fantasy, The Night Circus is a perfect example of this cross-over. 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 waged war between two magicians.

Know who your readers are. Select your beta readers from people who read in the genre you think you are writing for. It’s likely you are writing for yourself, so identify the sort of books you gravitate to, and choose your readers accordingly. If you’ve chosen the right beta readers, you will also know what your chosen market will be.

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