Passive voice

All posts tagged Passive voice

On passive and active voice, and a problem I didn’t know I had.

Published September 25, 2019 by mandileighbean

active-vs-passive-voice

Finally! A timely blog post for Writer Wednesdays! I know this isn’t impressive since I skipped posting last week, but last week was my 31st birthday, and I think that’s a good reason to alter a schedule.

I was successful in my search for beta readers, and I am pleased to announce I’ve already received useful feedback! What’s interesting is that both a beta reader AND a potential publisher mentioned I use the passive voice too much. At first, I was shocked. How did that happen? When did that start happening? Is it because I’ve been reading a lot of European fiction? What’s going on? So I decided to do some research.

According to a potential publisher (who rejected my manuscript because it was written in “7.6%” passive voice), American audiences have been more inclined to purchase books in active as opposed to passive voice. The publisher in question didn’t attach an article or a summary about where exactly the numbers came from, nor did the publisher explain its computations for arriving at the figure 7.6%. But that’s my pride whimpering because one of my beta readers mentioned that the passive voice I used at the beginning of a short story made it confusing. The good news is that the publisher said it would consider the manuscript if I rewrote it in more of an active voice. Deciding my next move, and facilitating my next stage of evolution as a writer, led me to investigate the debate (not that there necessarily is one … but I digress) between passive and active voice.

In active voice, the sentence of the subject performs the action. According to Purdue OWL’s Writing lab, “Using active voice for the majority of your sentences makes your meaning clear for readers, and keeps the sentences from becoming too complicated or wordy” (read more here). In such sentences, “The action is performed upon the sentence subject, meaning this sentence is passive (indirect)”. So sentences written in passive voice are less clear and less concise than those written in active voice because they need more words to express the action. Purdue OWL elaborates on this problem with passive voice:

Sometimes the use of passive voice can create awkward sentences…. Also, overuse of passive voice throughout an essay can cause your prose to seem flat and uninteresting.

And I feel like that is a major problem with my prose! I was re-reading (and revising and editing) my new project, and I was thoroughly unimpressed by my opening. It was coldand impersonal to a fault. Oh no! I have lost my writer’s voice!

Then again, choosing passive voice is sometimes an option. “While active voice helps to create clear and direct sentences, sometimes writers find using an indirect expression is rhetorically effective in a given situation, so they choose passive voice.” But this should only happen in certain writing situations. “The passive voice makes sense when the agent is relatively unimportant compared to the action itself and what is acted upon.” Passive voice is okay when emphasizing action, but after doing my bit of research, it seems like it’s more trouble than its worth to use passive voice.

1. Avoid starting a sentence in active voice and then shifting to passive.

Unnecessary shift in voice:
Many customers in the restaurant found the coffee too bitter to drink, but it was still ordered frequently.
Revised:
Many customers in the restaurant found the coffee too bitter to drink, but they still ordered it frequently.
Unnecessary shift in voice:
He tried to act cool when he slipped in the puddle, but he was still laughed at by the other students.
Revised:
He tried to act cool when he slipped in the puddle, but the other students still laughed at him.

2. Avoid dangling modifiers caused by the use of passive voice. A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that modifies a word not clearly stated in the sentence.

Dangling modifier with passive voice:
To save time, the paper was written on a computer. (Who was saving time? The paper?)
Revised:
To save time, Kristin wrote the paper on a computer.
Dangling modifier with passive voice:
Seeking to lay off workers without taking the blame, consultants were hired to break the bad news. (Who was seeking to lay off workers? The consultants?)
Revised:
Seeking to lay off workers without taking the blame, the CEO hired consultants to break the bad news.

3. Don’t trust the grammar-checking programs in word-processing software. Many grammar checkers flag all passive constructions, but you may want to keep some that are flagged. Trust your judgment, or ask another human being for their opinion about which sentence sounds best.

So the question now becomes: how do I fix my problem with passive voice? I realize that using it makes my sentences longer, makes my voice cold and impersonal, and makes my meaning unclear. I think this problem with passive voice started with my second manuscript because I wanted to talk about things that happened before the story technically started, so I wanted to use some kind of past past tense. I got into a bad habit of using passive voice to play with tense, but now it’s time to break the habit.

What writing rules/concepts do you still struggle with? Comment below and let me know, and I can feature a mini-clinic on this blog!

 

%d bloggers like this: