Writing/Editing Tip of the Week – Passive Voice

Since the spammers are being stupid now and only leaving me comments with links, which I won’t EVER approve OR discuss outside of this sentence due to their subject matter (things best left for erotic tales and little blue pills), I will now have to switch topics. So there will be no more Spam Comment posts. My apologies. Hang the spammers, if you can find the little bastards. Let me know, though, because I’d very much like to pull that lever.

I know there are a ton of writing rules out there these days, and the agents and editors aren’t always correct. Shocker, I know, but I mean, hell, look at 50 Shades of Grey (yes, it was essentially self-published first, but a larger house picked it up). That book is an editing nightmare…but that’s just my opinion. A lot of people really seem to love it. Good for them. There are a lot of vanilla people out there who know nothing about that world. I won’t be reading it without a red pen.

Sharon, my business partner in Running Ink Press, and I believe that you should Write Outside the Box! A lot of the “rules” are out the window with us because, well, we tend to disagree on the accuracy of said rules (for instance, she’s running a Save the Adverbs campaign), but regardless of what we believe, we don’t want the “rules” to hinder your writing style. NOTE: We are not accepting public submissions at this time, but we will announce when we are ready to do so. Subscribe to RIP for updates.

That said, I’d like to discuss some of the things that grate on my nerves I edit when I’m working on someone’s (or my own) novel.

This week’s tip is: Passive voice.

Some agents/editors don’t care for it. Some don’t give a shit either way. Some might try to strangle you if you use passive voice, so be careful. If Terry Brooks tried to publish The Sword of Shannara today, he’d get turned down MULTIPLE times, and not just because of passive voice. He head-hops like no one I’ve ever seen. It’s insane. But damn, is that a good book!

Basically, passive voice can be something you don’t realize you’re doing until someone points it out. For instance, using was with an -ed or -ing ending word is passive, though not always. If it’s not active, it’s passive, and passive isn’t always good. I believe there are times when you just can’t write around this instance, but most of the time you can. My rule is that if you can change the sentence and make it better without using the was -ed or -ing combo, great. You’ve just improved as a writer. But if it’s impossible to change, it’s not a big deal. Sometimes, we just have to use that combo. Sometimes, we just have to write passively, and it’s okay.

So you want an example. Okay, fine. I’ll pull something from one of my own files. That’s right, yours truly has used passive voice numerous times in the past. Sharon can attest to that, and I’m surprised I’m still alive. Oh look, I’m editing a vampire novel I wrote back in 1999. There are a TON of amateur writer mistakes in that. Lucky you. I’m in the midst of a sex scene, though, so you’ve been warned. HA!

Example from The Vampyre Prophecy:

The salty taste excited him because it was like tasting victory after catching his prey.

Yeah, I know, it’s a horrid sentence. I wrote that shit 13 years ago. So where’s the passive voice? Let’s take a look…

The salty taste excited him because it was like tasting victory after catching his prey.

The words marked in red obviously signify the passive voice. When you read the entire sentence, you see that I’m telling you what’s happening here. I’m not showing you or allowing you to taste the victory yourself. That’s the issue. So let’s fix it.

The salty taste excited him because it tasted like victory after catching his prey.

See how much cleaner that is, how it flows better, rolls off the tongue better? Now it’s not so passive. Now you can kind of taste the victory instead of me telling you what it tasted like, I can only hope. I could even go further in the edit…

The salty taste excited him. It tasted like victory after catching his prey.

Imagine what it’s going to be like once he’s tasted her blood.

By the way, I almost missed that sentence in this edit, so I’m glad I came up with the idea for this post!

Professional Example (taken from Painless Grammar by Rebecca Elliott, Ph.D. – I used to work with kids, people):

Passive: The ball was hit.

Active: Zhen hit the ball.

In the active sentence, we see who hit the ball. That’s important. When the person doing the action isn’t important, then passive voice is okay, such as in the following sentence:

The cafeteria food was contaminated.

No one cares who did it; just that it happened.

There you go, your writing/editing tip for the week. When you’re writing those words today, watch out for passive voice! And if you’re editing for someone else, keep an eye out for it!

I started out titling this post Editing Tip of the Week, but realized this might be more about writing than editing. Really, it’s both. You decide. Tell me in the comments below if this Monday post should be:

Editing Tip – 

Writing Tip – 

Thanks!

And now that I’ve been completely distracted from my novel, I’m going to squeeze in a bit more editing before bed.

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13 thoughts on “Writing/Editing Tip of the Week – Passive Voice

  1. Passive voice is useful because it gives the writer a way around saying “I,” and we’ve been taught that only egotists (or egoists?) use “I” as much as you’d have to if you wrote honestly. In fiction, passive voice is usually easy to get around.

    You know that Big Rule Against Head-hopping (and maybe even the term “head-hopping”) is just another one of those RWA RULES.

    “Head-hopping” is only a problem when the writer is sloppy with it. Emily Brightwell, for one, head-hops like mad, but the reader is never left wondering what’s going on or who is thinking which thoughts. Head-hopping is terrific for comedy and for, IMO, romance. Brightwell writes cozy mysteries, and her technique works swell.

    And gosh yeah, save the adverbs, she shouted joyfully!

    • I’m talking about passive voice in 3rd person, mainly, because it’s difficult to not write passively in 1st person, unless you write in present tense. =) But if it were easy to get around in fiction, I wouldn’t be editing it out of author’s novels. It could be easy to get around in fiction, if the author chooses not to be lazy and realizes there is almost always a better way to write that sentence. Almost always.

      “Head-hopping” is fine (JR Ward switched POV 13 times in the last BDB book) as long as said “head-hopping” doesn’t happen in the same paragraph. That’s the point I made. Terry Brooks, a multi-published author, did this, and yes, even I got lost as to whose POV I was in. I shouldn’t even have a doubt about it, IMO. So yes, I think that’s sloppy writing, and I’ve even done it myself many years ago. If it works for Emily Brightwell, that’s awesome. I don’t read mysteries, so I haven’t had the pleasure of reading her work. Perhaps I’ll check it out.

      Thanks for commenting. =)

  2. I like the option in word that tells you if you are using passive voice. I am SO bad at this. I head-hop also, but use separate paragraphs and I make sure it isn’t like watching a tennis match.

      • I totally agree with that. But it helps with passive voice. I hate word. I like intentional fragments and it always gets me on those, among other things. I’ll leave it to my trusty editor to catch what I can’t. 🙂

  3. You know my general rule of thumb for passive voice: active voice for action; passive voice for emotion. You can’t always keep to that guideline, but if you do 90% of the time, you’ve developed what is IMHO a good writing habit.

    Also, shorter, almost staccato sentences for action, because things happen so fast. Use power words: jab, punch, slam, throw, hurl, kick, thrust, etc. They have a greater impact than some of the weaker verbs.

    For emotion, use passive voice and flowing sentences, as well as imagery – create a captivating visual but don’t skate off into the purple or you’ll lose your readers. Purple may have been okay for Austen, but we’re 21st century writers penning for 21st century readers. Purple won’t work for most of them.

    Oh, and SAVE THE ADVERBS!!

  4. Oh, I forgot about headhopping…

    Robert McCammon did it a lot in his early works. Damn, I love those books! As long as it isn’t confusing as to who is thinking, it doesn’t put me off a story at all.

  5. Sigh, okay, don’t beat me up too bad. I hate absolute rules. If we all wrote to absolute rules, our writing would all sound the same even though we have different stories to tell. As we look at our earlier writing, we will see a shift in style. It is a learning curve. Hopefully, we all improve.

    When I read a book, I need it to be mixed up. If the book is all passive, I’m going to snore. If it is all… what aggressive? It may become too intense for me. I will feel like I’m being yelled at all the time. I was fine with your passive voice in that particular example.

    Rules are useful as a base point. I just have a problems with them being absolute. Although, I do still get confused when to use was and had been. I abuse the word, that. The comma story changes daily. I can stare at a sentence and have it shift back and forth in my brain for the way it should be laid out. Sometimes, I come back later and put it back the way it was. When I catch myself doing this, I must iron my hands (okay which movie is that from?) Sorry, I digress.

    No matter what we write, or how we write it, some people will love it, and some people will hate it. My biggest theme is don’t kill the creativity of the work worrying about what said publisher is at the time requesting. If the creativity dies, there is nothing left worth keeping. If a million people love, love a particular book that is written against all the rules, just how valuable are the rules? If rules didn’t change, we’d all still be writing in Shakespearian, or worse, bible. Imagine writing erotica in biblic form.

    “Thou didst put the widow’s peaked breasts against thy lips,” his father did say. “She was mine, thou slothenly son. Go forth and find thine own cun… harlot.”

    I didst weigh in.

      • I thought I was writing in biblic. Using a small voice cause I feel silly and don’t want to ruin the humor, I don’t know what you’re asking? What the son might have said above the father? Or cun… harlot? =p

  6. It’s both, obviously. Any writer has go to be an editor. Word picks up on passive voice. I always go through and see how I can fix the sentence. Sometimes, I like it as written, sometimes, I change it.

    Hey, what’s wrong with head hopping? I like head hopping. Within reason, LOL.

    One of the things I like about being an indie is I can have more leeway in my writing. I must say, I enjoy that.

    I like the writing/editing tips, Jinxie. Great idea. I did one on dialogue tags a while back. Would that more writers would READ some of the tips and incorporate them!

    • Thanks, Hope. Also, I don’t trust Word to pick up everything. I mean, hell, Word’s grammar really sucks. But I like what you’re saying about having more leeway. I think it’s important to change the rules up a bit, but I’d also like to see good writing, and there is entirely too much bad writing out there these days.

      I would LOVE guest posts, by the way. *hint, nudge*

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