Thursday, May 26, 2011

Editing Ninja: Passive Voice is for Losers

I’m tired of people mucking up passive voice, so here it is, once and for all:

A passive sentence is one in which the subject receives the action instead of doing it.

Example: The boy was bitten by the dog.

Snooze fest, right? And easy to correct:

The dog bit the boy.

If you are writing a slightly different kind of story: The boy bit the dog.

Easy, right? Passive voice adds extraneous words and weakens a narrative. Do a quick search of your manuscript for the use of “by” (for PCs: CTRL+F to open the search dialogue box and then search for by with one space before it). Try to change your passive sentences to the active voice.

Passive voice makes sense in limited situations. Writing a mystery?

The man was murdered. -- technically a passive sentence, but notice the lack of "by". In a mystery, we wouldn't know who murdered the man.

Some folks tend to say any sentence with a linking verb (forms of be: is, was, were, etc.) is a passive sentence. Not so. I'll address the weakness of linking verbs in the future.


Barry Napier said...

I read this with a bit of a red face. This is one of my really big downfalls. My first drafts tend to be LOADED with passive voice. Something I continue to struggle with and work on. No idea why.

Aaron Polson said...

No red face needed, Barry. I'm hypersensitive because I've been teaching for twelve years.

Sage Ravenwood said...

Love it! This is why it's ideal to have a teacher beta read your book. Just saying...(Hugs)Indigo

Miss Fletcher said...


Cant say I see this problem often ... what on earth are you reading?

Aaron Polson said...

Indigo - Ha! I'm not much of a line editor, but certain things jump out.

Miss Fletcher - Student papers. Oh man...

Fox Lee said...

You're going to make up for the years of grammar I missed in school, when they put me in advanced classes. We were supposed to learn grammar later, but then the program was cancelled : P

Cate Gardner said...

I heart this post so much. Keep them coming.

Keith said...

Hey Aaron,

I just posted a short review on Bottom Feeders. Once again, I enjoyed the book. While my "reviews" are only that of a common reader, I hope that they provide you with encouragement!

Aaron Polson said...

Natalie - Advanced is an excuse for me to take a nap around here.

Cate - I will. I will.

Thanks, Keith. I'm glad you enjoyed the read. ;)

Alan W. Davidson said...

I shall print that off for future reference...and where were you 33 years ago when I was taking Jr. High english class!

Anonymous said...

Passive voice adds extraneous words and weakens a narrative.

I tend to shy away from these kind of Strunk & White rules. Whose to say when a word is extraneous? We all know that we're supposed to avoid the passive voice, but it actually has a function. It exists for a reason. The passive shifts the focus of an action from the do-er to the done-to, and sometimes that's exactly what a writer wants to convey.

Katey said...

I'm just going to start linking people to this post.

And I disagree with the comment above me. If you have to explain to someone why your extraneous words have a use, then you've used the wrong words.

Katey said...

I'm just going to start linking to this post.

Also, I disagree pretty violently with the comment above this one. If you have to explain to someone why your extraneous words are important, then you've used the wrong words.