Lyn Gala

One writer's journal through one version of reality

Kill that Passive Voice

23 Comments


I should be writing my novel, but I either have the stomach flu or Wendy’s did not keep their meat at temperature… who knows? Anyway, I’m surfing Facebook—the time killer and bane of all writers and I came across one more post admonishing writers to avoid passive voice.

Most of these posts include a nice little description of passive voice. It’s when the thing getting acted on is placed up front and the person doing the action is shoved into the back of the sentence or removed altogether. You can spot them because a passive voice sentence picks up a helping verb.

Active voice:

Lyn threw the ball

Passive voice shoving the subject in back:

The ball was thrown by Lyn

Passive voice with subject missing:

The ball was thrown.

 

And here is where most of these posts stop. The author must find and fix passive voice on their own. That’s a little like pointing to a field and saying… “Hey, there’s a bomb somewhere. Go disarm it.” They don’t even explain WHY it’s considered poor writing in English. So, here is some of what I’ve picked up over the years.

 

Passive voice lets writers hide a guilty party.

The money was stolen. The inspection was botched. The suspect was incorrectly arrested.

Yeah… do you see how the guilty people are suddenly ducking out of the blame? In romance writing that’s a particularly serious error because the reader can’t tell who is doing what.

Susan was betrayed.

Um… by whom? The asshole who cheated on her, the girlfriend who was the second person in the bed, or both? Passive voice hides Susan’s true feelings of betrayal.

 

So, how do you fix passive voice? First, you have to find it. Here’s a short passage.

Da’shay was carefully watched as she moved toward Tom with that sway in her hips that meant she was in a mood to play and Tom was considered her favorite playtoy. Tom never had much luck with women, so he wasn’t sure how he had lucked out with Da’shay. However, the chase was included in their game, so he planned a good long run, and he’d keep running until he was caught fair and square. Then she could tie him down and use him as she liked, and she would.

 

You want to suspect any linking verbs.

1. “Da’shay was carefully watched as she moved”

2. “she was in a mood to play”

3. “Tom was considered her favorite playtoy”

4. “he wasn’t sure how he had lucked out”

5. “the chase was included in their game”

6. “he was caught fair and square”

 

Passive voice is a structure where the person doing the action is either moved to the back or removed. Check each sentence by looking for the action (verb) and deciding if the person doing that action is up front where he or she should be.

 

1. The verb is “watched.” Who is doing that? Either Tom is watching her OR there is someone else watching the couple start their gameplay. This is the worst type of passive voice because it makes the actions unclear. If Tom is going the action, “Tom” should be placed at the front of the sentence so the reader knows who is doing the action.

2. The only verb is “was.” The sentence is about Da’shay, and the “she” is up front. This sentence is fine.

3. The verb is “considered.” Who is considering it? Does Tom consider himself a playtoy or does Da’shay think of him as a playtoy? This is written from Tom’s point of view, so this should reflect Tom’s thoughts, but this sentence is so unclear that it almost reads as if we’ve jumped to Da’shay’s point of view.

4. The verb is “was.” The fact that you don’t have another verb in there means this isn’t passive voice.

5. The verb is “included.” Who is including it? “Chase” is the thing that is included, so it can’t be the subject doing the action, but it’s up front. That’s passive voice.

6. The verb is “caught.” Who is doing the catching and who is getting caught? The person doing the action should be up front and the person getting caught should be in back. Wait. The sentence is backward. Tom is getting caught, but his name is up front.

 

So this short passage has four pieces of passive voice. Fixing them isn’t difficult. In each case, you do the same thing. You have to figure out who is doing the action. Then take that person and put their name (or a pronoun that refers to them) up front.

 

1. “Da’shay was carefully watched as she moved”

Who is doing the watching? I don’t want someone else in this scene so it must be Tom. I need to put him up front. I then drop the helping verb out of the sentence: “Tom carefully watched Da’shay as she moved”

 

3. “Tom was considered her favorite playtoy”

This is Tom’s point of view, but the fact is that thinking about yourself as a playtoy is a little creepy. I want Da’shay to look at Tom like he’s a playtoy, so he’s just thinking about her attitude and reveling in how much she likes to “use” him. So I’m going to put Da’shay up front as the person doing the “considering.” That will push “Tom” into the back half of the sentence. “Da’shay considered Tom her favorite playtoy.

 

5. “the chase was included in their game”

This is confusing. Who included chasing as part of their sexual game. I seriously hope it was both of them agreeing on it. But as it’s written, it’s really not clear who set up this dynamic. This is where passive voice makes things truly confusing. Put that both of them include this up front so it’s clear this is a shared kink: “They included the chase as part of their game.”

 

6. “he was caught fair and square”

Clearly Da’shay is doing the catching, so leaving her out of the sentence is just lazy. If she’d doing the action, put her up front. “Da’shay caught him fair and square.

 

 

So, put it all together and write the passage in a more active (rather than passive) voice:

Tom carefully watched Da’shay as she moved toward him with that sway in her hips that meant she was in a mood to play and Da’shay considered Tom her favorite playtoy. Tom never had much luck with women, so he wasn’t sure how he had lucked out with Da’shay. However, they included the chase as part of their game, so he planned a good long run, and he’d keep running until Da’shay caught him fair and square. Then she could tie him down and use him as she liked, and she would.

 

 

So that’s how you kill passive voice (after recognizing it).

 

Look, I honestly don’t know who reads this blog. Is this useful? A waste of time? Should I be off writing my pirate novel?

 

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Author: lyngala

Lyn Gala started writing in the back of her science notebook in third grade and hasn't stopped since. Westerns starring men with shady pasts gave way to science fiction with questionable protagonists which eventually gave in to any story with a morally ambiguous character. Even the purest heroes have pain and loss and darkness in their hearts, and that's where she likes to find her stories. Her characters seek to better themselves and find the happy ending (or happier anyway), but it's writing the struggle that inspires her muse. When she isn't writing, Lyn Gala teaches history part time in New Mexico and constantly prays for that one big breakout novel that will let her leave the classroom behind forever. She loves teaching, but she loves writing more.

23 thoughts on “Kill that Passive Voice

  1. This was wonderful Lyn. I’ve hears o much about not using passive voice but this is one of the first I’ve seen with useful examples in the form of a paragraph not just random phrases.

    So yes, I’m reading…but surely you have 36 hours a day to write both a blog and a pirate novel.

  2. Great article! Hope you feel better.

  3. I found that useful. I have heard that writers shouldn’t use passive voice but you are right, I’ve never heard an explanation as to why. Before now, that is.

  4. Well said. You used good examples and attended to each one of them. If I ever have the time to volunteer to beta for anyone I will use this as my example. Thanks!

    • I’m glad it was clear. I didn’t want to overwhelm anyone with the examples, but it’s one of those things that can be hard to see without several examples.

  5. I read your blog, I love it. And the passive voice is one of my biggest sins. I have problems with it all the time. This was a great explanation of what exactly it is and how to fix it.

  6. Well, I’m not gonna say you *shouldn’t* be writing your Pirate thing, because yeah… however, this was very helpful. I do you read your blog (obviously) and this was a very clear and understandable example. 🙂

    • I totally should. I left my African steampunk pirate in the hands of the army, but when my tummy hurts, I really don’t write well. I’m just glad this came out making sense

  7. As an English prof who tries to pound this into my students’ heads every semester, this was great. Not that I can use it in a Business Communication course, for obvious reasons, but the principles all translate, and this is very well-explained!

  8. Great post, thank you!
    I’d argue that the chase/game sentence is fine as it is though. It’s “their game”, so it’s obvious it’s them doing the including. Not all instances of passive voice are a mistake (e.g. subject is obvious, subject is not important, focus shifted to object, subject being purposefully left vague by the author for whatever mysterious reasons).

    • I think there are times when you get to break the rules as a writer, particularly when you are trying to emphasize something or make a sentence stand out. However, I have seen some pretty egregious passive voice abuse, and I’m not sure inexperienced writers even understand how or why to avoid it.

  9. Like you said I’ve always been told (esp. in high school/college) not to use passive voice, but why and I find if you don’t understand why to avoid something it’s hard to doing it.

  10. This is a good post, and useful. I will say, though, that sometimes passive voice is the right tool for a job, especially when you actually want the focus to be on the object of the sentence rather than on the subject. It’s the difference between, oh, “he was stunned by her actions” and “her actions stunned him.” All the useful information is included in each statement, but in the first the focus is on the man’s emotional state and in the latter the focus is on the woman’s behavior. The last passive phrase in your example is similar — if it were more important that Tom had been caught than that it was Da’shay who caught him, it would make sense to leave the passive voice, since it comes in a context where there’s no real ambiguity as to the subject of the sentence.

    • The rule to always avoid passive voice is like the rule to always avoid linking verbs–best ignored some of the time. I think most grammar rules actually are like that. Avoid sentence fragments… except when they work to make an idea stand out. Show don’t tell… except when you need to speed through boring action. Every rule has its exception, and you’re right that you have to pull those exceptions out on a regular basis with passive voice.

  11. If I recall correctly, Josh Lanyon also had something to say about use of passive voice in Man, Oh Man! Writing Quality M/M Fiction, which is where it got stuck in my head. I recall reading somewhere (maybe there?) the reader isn’t as engaged with the action when it’s in passive voice. Active voice draws the reader into the action more.

    (And can I just say that paragraph made me cringe when I first read it.)

    • That paragraph should have made you cringe. You can have great action, but passive voice does have a habit of sucking the life and vigor out of it, especially if it’s overused.

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