Saturday, July 9, 2011

Problems with Passive Voice

                 Passive Voice versus Active Voice. It’s often talked about, but sometimes hard to understand. Even if you understand it, it can be hard to keep in mind while writing. So, what is passive voice? How about an example?

                The path through the forest was being traveled on by Little Red Riding Hood the day after she had received a letter that was written by her sick grandmother, asking her for some special cookies that were made by Little Red’s mother. Little Red had packed up the treats quickly and had started down the path toward the house that was owned by Little Red’s Grandmother, but halfway there she was stopped by a wolf that had been waiting by the path for hours!

                I wrote that in approximately thirty seconds. There are multiple problems with it, but hopefully one of the things you picked out was the little thing most often referred to as ‘Passive Voice.’ It’s kind of boring, not very gripping, and maybe even a little hard to follow in places.

Let’s try rewriting those sentences in a more active voice, and see if we can make it more exciting. See if you can pinpoint the difference.

Little Red Riding Hood skipped along the path through the forest, a day after her sick grandmother sent a letter asking for some of her daughter’s special cookies. The basket of treats swung against Little Red’s hip as she made her way toward her grandmother’s house. Just as she spotted her grandmother’s front gate, a snarling wolf loped onto the path in front of her, looking hungry. But his gleaming eyes weren’t focused on the basket of cookies.

Still not perfect, but I think we could all agree that it’s better than the first example. Not only does it have a little more action and a little more connection with the events taking place, but it also gives us more detail about what’s going on, even though it’s actually shorter than the first example.

And all I did was replace some of the passive voice with more descriptive words.

Many examples of passive voice follow this basic formula:

form of ‘to be’ + past participle = passive voice

In other words, something like:

                To put off working on my NaNoWriMo novel, I was forced to write a few blog posts.

                Was is the form of ‘to be’ (others include is, are, am, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, and being).

                And forced is my past participle (a form of a verb that usually ends in –ed).

                Now, passive voice isn’t technically wrong. Sometimes, you have no choice but to use it. In certain kinds of writing, it can even be preferred (science writing, reporting crimes, more ‘official’ things like that, or places where the person who’s carrying out an action isn’t all that important). Even in my example, there was one sentence that I left in a passive voice – “But his gleaming eyes weren’t focused on the basket of cookies.”

                But in fiction writing, you generally want to use a more active voice. Passive voice can be hard to understand, unclear, and even wordy. It’s harder for a reader to get into the action of your story.

                Personally, I noticed the other day that I use passive voice more than I should, which contributes a lot to my tendency of making everything I write long. Really long. T-T It’s a problem.

                Do you struggle with Passive Voice? Is there something I left out that you feel should be addressed? What other problems do you sometimes struggle with when writing?


Links to more information on Passive Voice, and sites that explain it better than I do:

By the way, for those of you who are interested...
Current JulNoWriMo wordcount: 30,424 words.
It's going rather well. ^^

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