Monday, October 11, 2010

TO BE OR NOT TO BE: What is “passive” writing?

Before Darlene gets started, I wanted to invite all of you to Dave King's Facebook Fanpage for Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.

Hope to see you there.

Now, back to you, Darlene. :-)


Recently I presented a workshop for my local ACFW group on self-editing tips. For preparation, I took my current work in progress and made note of things I corrected in my own work.

The first problem I identified? “Avoid passive verbs when possible.”

But what is passive writing?

We can define passive writing grammatically:
• Verbs of being: To be. Also to seem, to appear, to feel, to become
• Passive tense: where the subject is acted upon instead of doing the acting. “I was hit by a car” vs. “I hit a car” (or “A car hit me.”)

But “avoiding” passive writing goes beyond those two rules of grammar.
• Another related rule of grammar involves participles: “She was going to the store.” Notice the “was.” Can we instead say, “She went to the store”?
• We avoid passive statements by showing rather than telling. Rather than saying “she felt sad,” we can show her feeling sad. (See last Monday’s blog for more on showing emotions.)
• “To have” often is used in a passive manner. “She had nine bags of groceries.” Instead of “had,” we could use bought, carried, gave away. Any one of those choices sharpens the meaning of the sentence.

Am I suggesting that writers never use passive voice? Of course not. As you may have noticed, I have used it liberally in this post. A few suggestions:
• One article I read said to keep passive voice to 2-3 occurrences a page. Most writers use more than that (some, many more).
• My personal rule: no more than one passive verb per paragraph.
• In critiquing, I don’t mention passive verbs in dialogue.
• During revisions, I use “search and replace” to change the font color of all passive verbs. That way I have to make a conscious decision about whether to keep or rewrite.

Do you have questions about “what is passive?” and “how to I rewrite this?” Feel free to share your questions and comments below.

No comments:

Post a Comment