Wednesday, August 10, 2016

August Writing Challenges: Day 10 - Avoiding Passive Voice

August. The summer is nearly over. Kids are going back to school. You now have some time on your hands.  Okay, you still have a list of chores a mile long, but let's put writing at the top of the priority list, okay?

I am going to challenge you with a writing prompt every day this month. Are you up for it? I hope so.

The writing challenges will be about a variety of topics and hopefully cause you to dig into your writing toolbox to complete with emotional skill.

Watch out, I just might throw in a fun one, well, just for fun!

For the tenth challenge we're going to learn how to avoid passive voice:

Before we start on the challenge, let's have a short reminder about "passive voice."
Passive Voice is a grammar term. It's a reading factor. In other words, it makes reading easier. Amateur writers horribly abuse passive voice. Corporate writers tend to use passive voice to excess, often to a level of 40% or higher. The passive sucks the life out of writing. So, be aware when using it. Clearly, any writer who uses the passive in 40% of his/her sentences isn't aware of it, right?

That's where the definition comes in:

Do you recall diagramming sentences in school? Oh, I can hear the groans all the way down in Florida!

Subject | Verb | Object

In this simple diagram of the active voice, the subject of the sentence goes ahead of the verb, or action word. The object of the sentence receives the action.

For example, "Rhonda eats the alien."

The subject of the sentence, Rhonda, acts, that is, she's the eater. The verb is eats. And, that makes alien the object. In this case, the direct object of the action, eats, acted out by Rhonda, the subject.


Rhonda | eats | alien

To create a passive sentence we would do this:

The alien is eaten by Rhonda.

How? The subject of the sentence is acted upon.

Got it? Okay, let's try some exercises.

Here is your challenge:
Write these sentences into the active voice:

  1. The battle was begun by the scouts blundering into each other in the night. But the war - the war was begun by politicians blundering in the light.
  2. She was swept up in her own emotions, carried away by daydreams, buried in fantasy.
  3. He was struck twice, first by fear, then by the realization that he loved her.

Now go back and re-evaluate each of your changes. Do you find at at lease one or two of the sample sentences read better in the passive, maybe even all three? Good. The point of this exercise is to assure you the passive is not always a bad thing. Don't let any writing how-to book tell you otherwise.

Passive Voice uses more words than active voice to express the same idea. Passive voice also softens the impact of your writing. You won't want to do that in tense action scenes because you won't grab the reader's attention. Passive voice is sometimes harder to read and more difficult to understand. And not just because it uses more words. In long sentences, you often have to reread parts to find the bottom line or search for the actor, if one even exists, it's at the tail end.

So, that's "passive" in a nutshell.

QUICK NOTE: Unless you are using the passive with a purpose, that is, to mellow out a passage, to avoid giving away a clue, or to slow down the pace of your novel, don't use it. Like most writing coaches, I urge you to use the active voice most of the time.