We hear a lot as writers about avoiding passively-constructed sentences.
Common reasons we’re told to write in the active voice:
- Active voice makes for tighter writing.
- The subject in passive voice isn’t doing the action—the subject is receiving the verb’s action and being acted upon. The sentence construction takes the action and focus away from the character. The cake was made by Erma instead of Erma made the cake.
- Passive voice can make a sentence awkward or confusing to read.
- Passive voice frequently means wordiness.
Passive voice shouldn’t completely be edited out of your story—it can have a place. Technical or scientific writing in the passive voice gives the writing a feeling of objectivity. I’ll frequently use a passively constructed sentence while writing mysteries to give emphasis to the victim. Lawrence was murdered instead of Someone murdered Lawrence. It just emphasizes the mystery.
How not to look for passive voice in your manuscript:
If you solely rely on locating “to be” verbs (e.g., is, am, were, was, are, be, being, and been) to find passive voice, you’ll be eliminating plenty of active voice sentence construction, too. If you do choose to search for “to be”/linking verbs, make sure that you’re not deleting instances where your subject is doing the action. I am playing with my dog. Am is a “to be” verb—and that example is in active voice because I’m playing. Basically, just because you find a “to be” verb, it doesn’t necessarily indicate passive voice.
But searching for forms of “to be” is a way to find some passive voice sentences. And, if you have a lot of them, you might want to think about revising at least some of them.
Words to search for that can possibly help you find passive voice (again, be careful not to just automatically delete in response to finding these words…make sure that the subject isn’t doing the action before you eliminate or reword it.):
- Has been
- there was
- there were
- was being
- were being
- have been
- has been
What people sometimes confuse as passive voice is really the use of static verbs instead of dynamic (or active) verbs. But frequently editors will ask you to reword sentences with static verbs because you could write a stronger sentence with dynamic verbs. Journalist Constance Hale wrote an interesting article for the New York Times in April about static and dynamic verbs and some subcategories of each (I loved her list of wimpy verbs.)
Although hunting down “to be” words isn’t necessarily going to help you create active voice sentence structure, if you have a lot of linking verbs in your story, you might want to make sure you’re showing, not telling. So even though Anna was mad isn’t passive, it might make for stronger writing for you to say Anna slammed John’s plate on the table in front of him, making green peas fly off. Frequently, when writers talk about finding linking verbs in their manuscript, they’re really advising us to avoid using weak verbs.
This is a dry subject and I hope I covered it in a way that wasn’t confusing! The English major in me enjoys this stuff, but I’m not the teacher my English teacher father is. If you’ve got any questions on passive voice or weak writing (two different topics there), then I’m happy to try to field them. And if you have an editing list of your own for problem-areas you look for in your own manuscripts, please share them here. Thanks to Laura for hosting me today!
Elizabeth’s latest book, Quilt or Innocence, released in June. Elizabeth writes the Memphis Barbeque series for Penguin/Berkley (as Riley Adams), the Southern Quilting mysteries for Penguin/NAL, and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink and independently. She blogs at Mystery Writing is Murder & Writer's Knowledge Base--the Search Engine for Writers