My 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?