I was astounded when someone pointed out that one of my novels contained ‘passive voice.’ I had no idea what they were talking about. I went on a mission to find out exactly what they meant. I re-read my work and still couldn’t see it, so I Googled and came up with numerous blogs detailing it. Back to my work I went and...oh no! There it was, glaring out at me.
How does Passive Voice sneak in there?
Not everyone does this and I think that my personality has a lot to do with it. I’m not a direct speaker and don’t function well in groups. Therefore, I have a tendency to understate everything to take the attention away from me. I’m married to a Yorkshireman who traditionally, “calls a spade, a spade.” That’s not me. I prefer to call it a “digging thing” and work up to its proper name. The other reason - is that we often write exactly how we speak. This is where other sorts of errors also creep in. Only “direct speech” in writing should be colloquial and for the rest, we must follow the rules.
What does Passive Voice do to your writing?
Basically, it’s an opt-out clause for your subject or character. What the writer does with passive voice, is to rearrange the sentence, often without realising and take the action away from the character, therefore reducing the kick of the sentence. It’s a bit like tying a karate expert’s arms and legs up so that he can’t get out and then telling him to defend himself. He could, but it might just take longer. It’s the opposite of active voice and it forces your reader to stand outside the action instead of in the thick of it.
What does Passive Voice look like?
There are lots of examples, but I will share some of mine with you. Experts might debate the actual grammatical legitimacy of calling it that, but for arguments sake, here are my crimes:
‘He was going to the shops.’ = ‘He walked to the shops.’
‘He was taking his child to school.’ = ‘He took his child to school.’
These are just silly examples, but every individual does it in a variety of ways. As you can see, WAS is a key for me when I’m blitzing passive voice in my work.
Wordiness can do it too without you realising. This is something that I am guilty of. I remember an English teacher in 7th form saying to me as he handed my work back, “I gave you an A because it was beautifully written but when I read it again, I had to fail you. You wrote eloquently but didn’t actually say anything.” Oops. There it was, the coveted A crossed out and replaced with the F.
Lesson learned? Nope!
Sometimes much as you hate it, you have to rewrite the sentence. I know it hurts, but it has to be done so suck it up, take it apart and put it back together again. I know we don’t want to hear it, but SIMPLE IS BEST.
‘Carla was hurt by Tim’s words.’ = ‘Tim’s words hurt Carla.’
I have noticed that BEGAN is also another biggie for me. I recently did a search on the word ‘began’ in Blaming the Child and was astounded to find 95 incidences of it. There’s no way anyone could have ‘begun or began’ that many things in one novel. I don’t think it’s physically possible.
Repeated words can also reduce the effectiveness of your writing. It’s a dulling down that you don’t want to happen as it allows the writer to detach from the action and potentially wander off.
Below is an example from Blaming the Child. It hurts me to show you this because nobody wants their dirty washing dangled in front of the world but in the spirit of helping others, here goes. The first paragraph is the writing with problems highlighted and the second is the edited work. I could still change it more if I wanted but don’t want to lose the essence of it too much. It is after all, me speaking to the reader from the heart.
"When after two hours of half walking, half crawling, Declan declared that they had covered half a kilometre, Calli began to cry shamelessly, huge drops of water cascading down her face and off her chin into the cruel, unrelenting ground cover. “It’s dark and everything looks the same,” she sobbed. “I hate it.”
Declan came back to her, leaving his pack on the ground and vaulting the fallen kauri trunk that he had just managed to navigate. He landed next to the stricken girl in the leaves and dust and put his arm around her, doing his best to comfort her but still afraid of a backlash. “You hate too many things, Cal,” he sighed, brushing stray curls away from her face. “Your heart doesn’t have room for it all.”
The nuked version:
When after two hours of half walking, half crawling, Declan declared that they had covered five hundred metres, Calli sobbed shamelessly. Huge drops of water cascaded down her face and off her chin into the cruel, unrelenting ground cover. “It’s dark and everything looks the same,” she sobbed. “I hate it.”
Declan came back to her, leaving his pack on the ground. He vaulted the fallen kauri trunk that he had just navigated with difficulty, landing next to the stricken girl in the leaves and dust. He put his arm around her, trying valiantly to comfort her but still afraid of a backlash. “You hate too many things, Cal,” he sighed, brushing stray curls away from her face. “Your heart doesn’t have room for it all.”
I do have to warn you though, the trouble with finding this stuff, is that you have to go back through everything you ever wrote and change it. It’s a bit like discovering that in every photo from 1973 onwards, you had your skirt tucked up in your knickers. You have to find and destroy all the evidence. Nothing must remain to humiliate you. Operate a ‘shoot to kill’ policy with passive voice and wordiness. But don’t go silly with it. Try to remember that you are writing for another human being who just wants to touch your soul, so avoid making your writing so technical and clinical that it loses your humanness. That brings a different kind of detachment between you and the reader and you don’t want that either.
The other unfortunate issue is that you can spot it in other writer's work and it is enough to drive your reviews down to a 1* after 150,000 words of passive voice clanging in your ears. You become like the chain smoker who gave up and now hates all other smokers with a passion that outclasses any non-smoker, because you know what it does to them. Be kind about it though. Private message them and point it out. It's possible that they had no idea it was there.
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