Editing for Passive Voice

passive voice cartoonPassive voice is pervasive and often unwise. This post will involve a quick grammar lesson, but I’ll keep it short. Promise.

Most sentences of any length involve a subject and an object. The subject does the acting; the object is acted upon.

A clear example would be: The hawk swooped down on the snake. The hawk is clearly doing the acting here. The snake has no say at all.

The worst thing you could do here is to say: The snake was swooped down upon by the hawk. Here you’ve switched positions. You’ve put the snake in the place of the hawk, when he’s clearly doing nothing, not even getting away.

There’s a more subtle gaffe as well: The hawk was swooping down upon the snake. There are reasons for adding a verb be and giving the -ing form to the verb, but make sure you have one.

For example: Beowulf gritted his teeth as he was ripping the arm from Grendel. Okay, it shows simultaneous action, which is one good reason to use an -ing form of a verb. (AKA the present participle for those who care about such things. An excellent link for those who want further information can be found here.)

There’s a time and place for this form. “I’m thinking,” conveys a different shade of meaning than, “I think.” And “Whistling to himself, he walked down the road,” is a lovely way to portray simultaneous action and show a character being satisfied with himself, rather than telling it. It would be particularly effective if this character had just killed someone.

But Beowulf could have gritted his teeth as he ripped Grendel’s arm off. It’s punchier, (even though it ends in a preposition). You don’t need the -ing verb there.

It’s something you need to keep an eye on as a writer. It’s one of my personal weaknesses, and too many -ing verbs in rapid succession tend to draw attention to themselves. Ration them. Go with the simpler form of the verb if you can. “She ran toward me,” conveys slightly more agency on the part of the character than, “She came running toward me.” And especially if you were going to add the phrase, “screaming in fear,” the first form would be preferable.

It’s one of the many joys of editing, all the things you need to look for. But you’ll end up with a stronger story for it, and that’s really the main thing.

Keep writing! : )


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3 comments on “Editing for Passive Voice
  1. Tim Kimber says:

    I was trying to find an example of when switching to passive is actually a boon, for example in jokes in which having the subject mentioned at the end serves the joke better.

    However, in trying to come up with an example (my joke repertoire is barren) I found a very interesting article written by linguist Geoffrey K Pullum of the University of Edinburgh, in which he completely deconstructs our notion of passive “badness”.

    It’s a bit critical of those who advise against it (and I share it not to seem rude, but just because you’re obviously interested in grammar), and it’s rather technical in places and therefore difficult to follow; but the over-arcing argument is sound and actually very revealing. Particularly interesting is how much Orwell used the passive voice in his writing, despite declaring “Never use the passive where you can use the active”.

    Click to access passive_loathing.pdf

    Let me know what you think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting article–thanks for recommending it. I have several gut reactions to it, and I’ll try to be brief, but not so brief as to be inscrutable.

      The author points out several authorities criticizing passive voice, and then used examples to show that the sentences being criticized weren’t passive at all. I’d say that is similar to my article “Killing Your Darlings.” People get a hold of a pithy phrase or maxim, don’t really understand the underlying reason behind it, and then overgeneralize. A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. It’s always worth the extra effort to be informed.

      The author also points out that there are instances where the passive voice is actually preferable. I agree. The example I liked best was (see what I did there–and I did it for the same reasons) “President Kennedy was assassinated…” instead of a more active construction like: An assassin shot President Kennedy… The author implied that the importance of President Kennedy as a public figure made him a more suitable subject for the sentence. I particularly like it because it’s almost a yin/yang to my example in text: The hawk swooped down on the snake.

      Any rule can be overused. The movie Pirates of the Caribbean even made a plot point of it when referring to the pirates’ code as ‘more like guidelines.’ Guidelines are a better word for what we do. The important thing is to understand the language that we use (also somewhat passive, for the same reasons as above–emphasis).

      I disagree with the author citing examples that this is a 20th century development and implying that this is relevant. I LOVE 19th century literature, but I have to write for a 21st century audience. For a fiction writer today, it’s important to conform to the expectations of the audience they’re trying to entertain.

      Also, a point the author didn’t make, and really should’ve in my opinion, is that passive voice is far more acceptable in non-fiction, particularly science journals. It’s expected there. An experiment in APA format reads nothing like a novel. Quite often, when talking about writing, a passive construction is preferable. Know your subject and know your audience.

      At the end of the day, it’s always somebody’s opinion. Everyone has heard people rave over books they’d pay money to avoid reading. (Twilight? Fifty Shades of Grey? Seriously?) What we do is an art, not a science.

      But I still think it’s important to understand the difference between passive and active voice. Quite often, using active voice is preferable. We should know what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, rather than just plunking down words willy-nilly and hoping they’re good.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Tim Kimber says:

        I agree with everything you’ve said. Knowing the benefits of both active and passive is advantageous, while to blindly advocate one over the other limits your tools as a story teller. Glad you liked it though!

        Liked by 1 person

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