Saturday, June 19, 2010

Editing, the Process: Passive Vs. Active Voice

Again, I missed a day. I'm so very sorry about that. I didn't expect an upheval of violent weather yesterday, but it happened. So, we're pushing the schedule back another day. Today's topic is passive and active voice, the difference, and how to fix this problem.

First of all, what is passive voice and active voice? Simply put, in writing, the passive voice is evil. It detracts from the action in your writing and loses the readers interest. No doubt, half the places where you lost interest in your own story while reading through it were because of passive voice. The difference between a passive and active sentence is very subtle and usually easy to fix. I'm not saying that when you write a story that you should or even will be able to get rid of all of the passive "verbs," but you will want to try to get rid of 95-98% of them in your novel.

First of all, how do you recognize a passive sentence? Here is an example of a simple sentence (subject, action, object), one in passive voice and one in active voice.
  1. The girl found a kitten.
  2. A kitten was found.
These sentences are very similar. The 1st sentence (active) clearly shows the three parts to this sentence. The subject (the girl) found the object (the kitten). Its a simple sentence. The 2nd sentence (passive) is a little different. By the same rules we used for the first sentence, the subject would be the kitten. The action (was) and the object (found?). Does that make sense? NO! Usually, with passive sentences, you can change them to a question and use this to find the subject. Who was the kitten found by? The girl. Find these sentences in your writing and you can already see how to change them.

Not all passive sentences follow this rule, and in fact, sometime when using the passive verb (is, are, was, were, am, be, been, being) it isn't actually passive. Can you answer the question to find the subject?
  1. The sun was bright. (The sun was bright for...)
  2. The ball is round. (The ball is round for...)
You can see the subject in these sentences. But they aren't the same. The subjects in these sentences aren't actually doing anything. Still, you can even get rid of the was and is in those sentences by combining them with something else. "The boy bounced the round ball." "The lady covered her eyes from the bright sun." There's the fix to those types of sentences.You also want to avoid using "the" too often.

There are two situations where you don't want to remove all of the passive "verbs" in your sentence. I call them verbs because they try to act as the action in a sentence. Usually though, they just make a sentence weak and wordy. One situation where you will want to keep them is when you don't know the subject of the sentence.
  1. A man was ran over late last night.
  2. Who was in my room?
The other place where you won't get rid of all these passive verbs are in dialogue. As we all are aware (especially since we'll be hunting these down in our own writing) people use these words a lot when they speak. By taking them all away, you make the person speaking sound funny, for lack of a better word. Take for instance this passage of dialogue from "A Place Called Earth."
     "We decided that it would only be fair to make this a random drawing to see who would be going. No one here is here because they have more money or a better job. You all come from different places and different walks of life. We regret that we could not be more forthcoming about all of this, but it is what it is. You were chosen. You will not leave here before the predetermined time, and when you do, it will be on the ship that will be taking you to your final location--your new home on Sigma 6.

     "Sigma 6 is a planet circling two stars. It is very similar to Earth in its vegetation, minerals, and looks. You will all be very comfortable there. The journey itself will be very difficult. It will not be easy on your bodies or your minds. As of tomorrow, you will all begin getting prepared for the trip." He clicked a button and the image changed to a planet. He wasn't wrong. It did look a lot like Earth. It had a lot more water, and the land was much greener. I thought it looked like one big jungle surrounded by ocean.
     "There is plenty of life on Sigma 6, also. You will find many creatures similar to animals on this planet. The first five years spent on the planet, you will all be kept in domes to protect you from these creatures. We are still uncertain as to whether both ecosystems will be able to handle the change and we don't want to do anything that will destroy both. We are very hopeful that the human race will thrive in this environment.
     "As to our planet, I am sure you have all heard the rumors about something happening to Earth. Those rumors have proven to be true. In December, astronomers located a large group of meteors on a path toward Earth. We hoped that something else would get in the way and stop them from ever reaching us, or even missing us once they came close. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The largest of these rocks is roughly the mass of the continental United States. They won't only destroy life on this planet, but the planet itself."
I hope I found all of the verbs I discussed. Anyway, these are very important to speech, because they do make the dialogue sound believable. If I removed all of them, it would sound almost robotic. Still, this section hasn't been edited yet, and needs to be. When that does happen, I will post it to show the changes. Generally, in dialogue, if you have a character that uses them a lot, keep it that way throughout the story. Otherwise, knock it down to one or two every five or six sentences. Or one or two a paragraph.

Hopefully this has been helpful. If you are still confused about passive vs. active voice, send me a comment and I'll do my best to get you an answer!


  1. Good advice. This one of Orwell's tips, too.

    I think the main problem with the passive voice is that is omits the doer of the action, "The kitten was found". And without the doer, it's much harder for the reader to form a mental image of the action.

    Even by including a "by" part of the sentence, "The kitten was found by the girl", the reader then has to rearrange the order of the information given into the "doer" "action" "object" form, which is more natural to creating mental images. And you really don't want to annoy your reader.


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