How to Prune Passive Voice

How to Prune Passive Voice

I’ve been editing for friends for several years now, which is one of the reasons I’ve decided to start editing as a service. As a result, I see a lot of the same errors over and over. As soon as I started noticing them in the work of others, I found them in my own fiction.

I’ve already covered some basics to make editing easier, as well as a deeper focus on punctuation. Today, I want to cover one of my most frequent style-related notes: passive voice.

What is Passive Voice?

Passive voice is a narrative structure in which the object of the sentence’s verb serves as the subject of the sentence.

What the heck does that mean? Let’s have a quick grammar refresh.

The ‘object‘ of a sentence is the noun or noun phrase that a verb is acting on.

Let’s use the sentence Arimand bit his tongue against a retort to break this down.

Arimand is the person acting in this sentence, so he serves as its subject. The action he is taking, biting his tongue, is the verb. The object of the verb, therefore, is the object being bitten: his tongue.

This sentence is written in active voice because the subject of the sentence is acting rather than the object of the verb. If we were to re-write this sentence in passive voice it would say: The tongue was bitten by Arimand to resist an angry retort.

Oof, that’s a terrible sentence. Here’s another example of a passive sentence: Dinner the night before had been hastily consumed amidst battle plans and troop markers.

This sentence’s verb is hastily consumed. And the object that was hastily consumed was dinner. The subject in this sentence is the narrator, who isn’t named.

Why is it bad?

It’s important to note that passive voice is not a grammatical mistake. Sentences written in passive voice are perfectly acceptable. In fact, as we’ll discuss later, passive voice can be a powerful tool when applied properly.

Most writers recommend avoiding passive voice because it generally reads weaker than active voice. The way a sentence is structured can affect what the reader focuses on. It’s beyond the realm of this post, but ending a sentence with a strong word generally emphasizes that word or concept and makes it stick in a reader’s mind.

There are several reasons active voice is stronger than passive voice. First, it’s more straightforward in the way it presents information. Second, it’s more economical word wise. Passive voice generally requires more words in order to express the concept.

For example: The cat bit me is a lot clearer and more succinct than I was bitten by the cat.

Excessive use of passive voice is generally regarded as a mistake commonly made by beginners. But even veteran writers often lean on the passive voice in their early drafts. (Which makes it easy to spot if a story is in early development.) I think the prevalence of passive voice has to do with the way we think of concepts while we’re writing. If you want an object to be important to a scene, you focus on it in your mind. You focus on how your character will use it, or how it will be important. And suddenly every sentence starts with the knife or the lamp.

While you’re writing a first draft, the most important thing is to get the concepts out of your head and onto the paper. So I wouldn’t worry much about passive voice in early drafts. Focus on weeding it out during the editing process.

How to spot Passive Voice

Passive voice is easily identified by looking for forms of the verb to be. In most cases, passive sentences use some form of to be: is, are, was, were or have been. If a sentence isn’t using a form of the verb to be, it’s probably not written in passive voice.

But you have to be careful using this method to spot passive voice because not every sentence that uses a form of the verb to be is written in passive voice. For instance the sentence His cloak was missing is not in passive voice because the cloak is not a direct object of the verb. I could re-write this sentence to read in passive voice by saying: His cloak was misplaced.

Which leads to the easiest memory device you can use for spotting sentences: if you can add by so and so onto the end of the sentence and it makes sense, it is written in passive voice. My favorite, to make it fun, is to use by zombies. If I add by zombies to the end of the sentence His cloak was misplaced, it makes perfect sense, so the sentence is passive. But His cloak was missing by zombies doesn’t work, so the voice isn’t passive.

When is it good?

As I mentioned back at the beginning of this post, passive voice can be a powerful tool under the right conditions. Sometimes you want to put the emphasis on an object for some reason; then it makes sense to make it the focus of a sentence.

When should you use passive voice?
-If the person who has committed the action is unknown
-If the person taking an action is unimportant or irrelevant

When the work was done, a stranger led him to a tent.

-When you want to emphasize the thing or person being acted on rather than the person taking action

Someone on my G+ friends list helpfully pointed out how useful the passive voice is for journalism. If someone is reporting a murder, you might want to emphasize the victim instead of the criminal.

Passive voice can be particularly helpful for descriptive passages, which draw attention to a character’s surroundings.

The ramshackle structures were tents, made of threadbare fabric and rickety supports.

Passive voice can also be used when you want to avoid laying blame or identifying who is responsible for a specific action. Be careful with vague details, though, they’re one of the things that weaken fiction.

Further Reading

As with all my other guides, I’ve tried to keep this to the basics to make it simple and straightforward. But passive voice and its uses is a well-covered subject. There are plenty of other guides that delve a bit deeper into the details.

If you’d like to read more about passive voice, check out this article written by Grammar Girl, as well as this helpful guide presented by the University of Toronto. For more information on when to break the rule about avoiding passive voice, see this article written by September C. Fawkes.

The sentence examples I used in this article come primarily from Dreamers Do Lie, my fantasy re-imagining of Dante’s Inferno.

If there are any other topics you’d like to see me cover in the future, let me know in the comments!

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