Michille: Passive versus Active

EditingFaceMy MLA project was essentially approved by Pam Regis, my advisor, because it met the criteria we’d established. It includes a synopsis, reflection, and a set of representative scenes that update Sophocles’ Antigone to contemporary society and aligns four story structures into one. I have not submitted the final yet because my usual first draft errors are still on the page. I know I write a lot of passive sentences and overuse *ly adverbs, but I don’t let that stop me from getting words on the page. It’s easy enough to fix, right? Wrong – at least for me it’s not easy. I found this blog post about editing, which has a general plan of attack, starting with quantifying the problem.

The first item I quantified – ‘was’ – is on the page 321 times (in 40,000 words). The *ly is giving me a fit with 379 instances (not all are adverbs because family and Pollyanna and others have ‘ly’ but aren’t adverbs). Definitely and certainly pepper my pages and are often used in dialogue. I’m not finding them easy to fix. I don’t have obvious ones like, “she laughingly brushed off the comment,” which can be morphed into, “With a laugh, she brushed off his comment.” The good news is that many are tied to sentences that also have passive verbs. I’ve spent the last couple of days hunting up suggestions on how to fix passive voice and adverbs. A funny one I found is “if you can add ‘by zombies’ – it is passive.” I’m focusing on passive here. Addressing adverbs might be in my next post. I also read a post that stated Strunk and White got the passive voice thing wrong in their book. Gasp! (But that could explain why it is giving me fits – it isn’t always cut and dried.)

I had a few easy ones. “Her curves were partially hidden by a loose-fitting blue blouse over gray trousers that hid a growing baby bump” became “A loose-fitting blue blouse and gray trousers concealed her curves and guarded a growing baby bump.” In general, I found ‘were’ easier to correct than ‘was’. “A couple things were brought to my attention” became “A new resident to Bachman’s Run brought a couple things to my attention.”

Does passive voice always have to be changed in fiction? The answer is no. If you’re writing a mystery and you want to highlight the missing diamonds, “The diamonds were stolen” works better than “Someone stole the diamonds.” The diamonds are the focus of the first version.

The University of Wisconsin has a good online Writers Handbook. The focus is on academic papers, but a lot of if applies to many types of writing (I need to read the comma section next). They gave several examples of good reasons to use passive voice:

  • To emphasize the action rather than the actor: After long debate, the proposal was endorsed by the long-range planning committee.
  • To keep the subject and focus consistent throughout a passage: The data processing department recently presented what proved to be a controversial proposal to expand its staff. After long debate, the proposal was endorsed by . . . .
  • To be tactful by not naming the actor: The procedures were somehow misinterpreted.
  • To describe a condition in which the actor is unknown or unimportant: Every year, thousands of people are diagnosed as having cancer.
  • To create an authoritative tone: Visitors are not allowed after 9:00 p.m.

And then there are the times when I look at a sentence and some of the ‘bad’ writing stays. I took the ‘was’ out of this one, but the adverb remained. “All I gave him was one example” became “I only gave him one example.” Unless I come up with a better way to say this, it stays.

Do you have an easy way of recognizing and revising passive voice to active voice?

5 thoughts on “Michille: Passive versus Active

  1. Passive is tricky—there’s a problem with the first bullet beyond just passive voice. There’s a dangling modifier—“After long debate, the proposal….” The proposal can’t debate, so “the committee” needs to follow “debate.”

    It sounds like you’re getting sensitized to words as you go, which simplifies revisions later. If you notice every time you type “was,” then you can change the wording right then. I try always to write the draft in simple past tense (no past participles), which automatically limits the use of “was” and “have,” and I try to find the most active verbs I can. Good luck with those revisions! Sounds like you’re making good progress.

    • I’m in the home stretch.

      Unfortunately, I have to fix all that after the fact. Maybe if I bang my head on the keyboard enough on this edit it will stick when next I draft a scene. I need to go back and study grammar. The University of Wisconsin website (above) is a great resource. It’s been a long time since I’ve studied sentence construction and mine needs work. I had excellent English teachers in high school. A high school pal, Mary McNamara, LA Times critic, just won a Pulitzer (and has 2 published novels) so they obviously taught us something – I just don’t remember it.

      • I forget stuff all the time, too. I’m constantly looking up proper usage, and although I depend on Chicago, I enjoy the grammar romps. I just read a little blurb about a new grammar book I thought I’d get—I forget the name of it (of course)—by Steven Pinker. But according to the blurb, Pinker says that avoiding the passive voice is bad advice. So—feel free to go for it!

  2. LOL, what a coincidence! My students in junior high EFL are learning passive voice right now.

    It drives me crazy, because my college professors were adamant about passive. And it’s true: active is more exciting to read than active.

    The big thing, though, is what is the most important part of the sentence? Sometimes passive really is the way to go. Is it the baby bump curves? Or is it the maternity clothes? (I like the one that has the curves as the subject better, but I do like the active version — it’s unusual, and this is some nice imagery of maternity wear as a suit of armor. If your character is using pregnancy as a kind of weapon — and a woman could do that — it’s great.)

    It’s possible to speed up a passage too much. The reader can be really flying and miss stuff. Sometimes passive can slow that down. (But too much passive means the reader can start skimming, thereby missing stuff — so it’s really a tightrope.)

    I think a good procedure is: 1) identify the problem sentences. 2) Try it the other way. 3) Figure out which one you like best. (Remembering, of course, that active can be an acquired taste — you may resist it at first, but gradually grow to like a more active formation.)

    As for adverbs, I was told that adverb overuse is often a result of weak verbs. However, if you turn “She said furiously” into “She raged”, you will still get complaints. (And perhaps they are right — maybe the words she says should be more furious, instead of depending on the tag or the adverb. Then again, maybe not. Depends on her personality. Do her words match her body language?)

    If it’s any consolation, some people say Neil Gaiman uses a lot of adverbs, and he seems to be doing very well at drawing word pictures.

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