Two curses have befallen my writers group. We’re churning out good stuff mind you. Algrea’s writing an escapist fantasy set in Louisiana (until they find the proverbial wardrobe into another world). I just edited the first 5 chapters with plenty of mystery and magic to boot. VigRoco’s writing a high-browed sci-fi adventure where nothing is as it seems. I edited through the first episode yesterday, set in a dark intriguing universe. Mine is also science fiction, a tragic space opera set around our solar system.
Authors battle against bad writing habits all the time. The current two my group is facing have nothing to do with that ever bitter ailment of writers block. We overcame that a year ago when founding our three-cord Triumvirate Trubadours (working title, I like it they don’t). You can read more about the benefits of an effective writers group in Algrea’s blog here.
Our aliments are of a different kind, more subtle and deceptive. They plague many an aspiring author, hidden right under the nose.
VigRoco discovered the first curse. Many weeks ago while reading through Algrea’s work of fiction he said, “You write in the passive voice.”
To which Algrea replied, “What is a passive voice?”
Good question Algrea. It should be googled.
Wikipedia defines it as, “a grammatical construction (a “voice”) in which the subject of a sentence or clause denotes the recipient of the action rather than the performer.”
In other words: When the direct object is made into the subject you have a passive voice.
Read through the second definition a few times until it is ingrained within your cranium! Do you notice anything particularly wrong with it? “Direct object” is the subject of the sentence. “Is” is the verb. And “subject” is the direct object. If you haven’t caught it yet well, it’s written in the passive voice. There is nothing grammatically wrong with my definition though.
If this is the case, why should I even bother to fix it?
Let’s reword it and find out: A passive voice uses the direct object as the subject.
If you compare it to the former: When the direct object is made into the subject you have a passive voice. It becomes quite obvious which sentence is stronger. By placing “passive voice” as the subject you have a clearly defined, active sentence.
Are you getting it? I hope so because the little buggers have infected everyone in my group. Vig Roco found it in his own outlandish tales. It was even discovered (gasps) within my own stories! Or rather: my stories were riddled with the passive.
The passive voice is a clever foe. He hides in unobtrusive ways, weakening stories all around! Read the title of my blog post for another horrendous example. It should read: Authors should rarely use passive voice and wordy sentences.
A few clues to notice: a variation of the linking verb to be (was, had, been, are, could, would, should) placed before an action verb that ends with ed ( walked, talked, looked). This usually denotes a passive voice.
When it doesn’t denote the passive, well then you have something else entirely, which brings us to the next curse my group encountered: wordy sentence structure.
Mr. Wordy is Mr. Passive Voices’ brother-in-law. They meet at family reunions to discuss the many works of fiction cursed with their touch. They follow the letter of the law now (subject+ verb= sentence). They just ignore its intent (to make a sentence active and interesting).
Their uncle, Mr. Run-on Sentence, for instance, always comes in drunk and late slurring on and on about this in that. He is quite easy to catch. But ol’ Mr. Wordy… I found him many times preying upon my colleagues stories. Lucky for them I had my red ink pen prepared. I don’t know how many “not necessary”s I wrote beside a highlighted word or phrase. Then I would go home and read through my own stuff. Mr. Wordy was there as well, lurking behind my paragraphs like a ghost.
A good rule of thumb is to avoid constant usage of to be. There are exceptions where you have no choice (the obvious Shakespearian example: “to be or not to be that is the question“).
When to use “to be” and when to not use “to be”, this is our question. A well-structured sentence achieves clarity, flow, and action. If your wordy sentences are not doing this, look for ways to cut to the chase.
Ex. Fred would have been excited when he saw my present, had I not been stopped by my mother.
Fred’s excitement withdrew upon my mother’s approach. I gave him the present at a later time.
This sentence wasn’t passive by any means, it was just rather wordy.
It’s hard work weeding out wordy or passive voiced sentences, but well worth the effort. Over time it becomes second nature. A few have even been found while editing through this blog post (I found a few while editing through this blog post). Imagine how embarrassing it would be to have one of you catch me in a passive voice or wordy sentence (It would embarrass me to be caught with wordy or passive voice sentences). Myself wouldn’t know what to do with me (I wouldn’t know what to do with myself).
Readers won’t realize all the agonizing work you’ve done in correcting these sentences. They’ll be too busy enjoying well-paced literature.
Good luck and godspeed!