Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Passive Voice Misconception

Passive voice: when the subject of a sentence is acted upon. 

Passive: Ben was attacked by a swarm of bees. 

Active Voice: when the subject of a sentence is the doer of the action.

Active: A swarm of bees attacked Ben. 


We have all heard (from agents, editors, etc.) that passive voice is something every writer should learn to spot and should work to eliminate from their writing, but some people are unclear on what passive voice is and why they have to avoid it. 

For creative writing, it's better to write active sentences because they are more to-the-point. Passive voice is wordier and can be hard to understand. However, it's not totally wrong to use passive voice. For example: "My car was stolen!" is a correct sentence if your character doesn't know who stole their car. 

It’s very easy to make passive voice active if you need to. All you usually have to do is rearrange a few words.
TIP #1: Use the Search tool in Microsoft Word to find every single “was”, "were", and "had/have been" in your manuscript. If the subject is not doing the action, revise the sentence. Usually when "was" is followed by a verb ending in "ed" that is a sign of passive voice.
TIP #2: There are other signs of passive voice such as "being" and "will be". Doing a little research and keeping a list next to your computer will help you spot them easily.

Not literally.

There is one misconception about passive voice, though. A beta reader once told me I should change everything like “was sitting” and “was walking” because it was passive voice, but that's not correct. "He was sitting" and "She was walking" are past progressive tenses, not passive voice. And they are not wrong.


Past progressive: puts emphasis on an action that was in progress at some point in the past.

Example: May was walking home at dusk. 

The phrase "was walking" is active for a story written in the past tense. And the sentence is in active voice because May (the subject) was walking (the action).


PLEASE NOTE: Not every "was" is bad though, nor is it always a sign of passive voice (as I pointed out above). We need "was" in our writing because it's a common word, and it's pretty impossible to get rid of it all-together. 



QUESTIONS: Do you struggle with passive voice? 
Was it hard for you to learn?

Honestly, I still have a problem with passive voice. It sneaks into my writing when I'm not looking. Thank goodness for the Search tool and good betas! ;)


33 comments:

  1. Past progressive tense - didn't know about that one.
    It still sneaks in there, although I am much better at spotting it. (Along with telling rather than showing.) And it's usually easy to rearrange the sentence to eliminate it. On rare occasions, there's just no way to change it. (Maybe those are the instances of past progressive tense?) I either leave it or just delete the sentence.

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    1. I actually learned about past progressive tenses when the beta said every time I said "was sitting/running/walking,etc." were passive voice and I thought, "No, it's not!" And I wanted to make sure I was right.

      I think the occasions where you can't change it that means it's not passive voice, because if it is passive voice you usually just have to switch the subject and action to their proper places in the sentence. And that's pretty easy to realize once you know what to look for.

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  2. Great advice! "Was" and its other forms are definitely some words that I'm trying to weed out of my manuscript.

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    1. Thanks, Sarah, but not every "was" is bad though. We need "was" in our writing because it's a common word, and it's pretty impossible to get rid of it all-together. If you spot was with a past-tense verb (was colored, was signed, etc.) that's a sign that the sentence is passive and that "was" should definitely be weeded out.

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  3. I used to have a big sign by my computer that said "Stop the WASes!" Yes, I overused it a lot. I wonder if we are taught that in school since passive writing is so natural?

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    1. Not every "was" is a sign of passive voice, but I think you're onto something because I was never taught about passive voice in school and I was never told it was wrong.

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  4. I do struggle with it! Just when I think I have it down . . . nope, it sneaks in there. It's okay, I'll just keep trying. Thanks for the tips AND the reminder lol :D

    S.K. Anthony: Monday Re-blog Series: Coffee Chat 1.0—Stephen King is My Homeboy!

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    1. I think all writers struggle with it, or struggled with it in the past. You'll keep trying, and so will I. You're welcome, S.K.! :D

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  5. Hi Chrys! Happy Tuesday :)

    As a reader, I am curious as to why it's suggested that writer eliminate it?

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    1. Happy Tuesday, to you!! :)

      Passive voice is wordier and tends to be harder to understand. And sometimes it's hard to figure out who or what did the action in a sentence. Writing in active voice, the sentences are clearer and make more sense.

      But passive voice isn't entirely bad. Sometimes we need it, like I mentioned in my post.

      I hope that answers your question, and didn't confuse you anymore.

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  6. This is a great post, Chrys. Most of the time how my characters speak (or the narrative voice) will dictate this kind of stuff for me, but I'll certainly have to bookmark this for future reference.

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  7. When I first put my first chapter into ProWritingAid, it told me I had about 62 too many "was" uses. I freaked out at first. Luckily I've gotten better at using more interesting verbs. But I do notice excessive "was" usage when critiquing. It usually shows up in description. "The car was black."

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    1. I've never heard of ProWritingAid. I'll have to check that out. I probably have to learn how to use more interesting verbs in place of "was", too.

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  8. Yes, I totally do! You're so smart Chrys. Thanks for the tips. I have read one other post on this topic and went and looked at my manuscript...oh,oh. I must improve this part of my writing!!

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    1. The tips I share are all things I've learned, or I'm trying to learn to improve my writing, so I like to pass it on. :)

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  9. Oh yes and I need all the reminder help I can get so thanks Chrys. Most of it was my profession in that police officers are taught to write bland legal reports. It is something that is difficult to turn off when you need to write things that people actually want to read.

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    1. It is difficult to turn off, because we also talk in the passive voice a lot. And I wasn't taught different in school. We all need these reminders. :)

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  10. A great reminder, Chrys. It's easy to fall back into passive writing, even when you've been writing for a while.

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    1. It is TOO easy to fall back into passive writing. Way too easy. haha

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  11. I have probably done it a few times without realizing it, now I will keep that in mind indeed. As it can get wordy.

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    1. It happens to me all the time still, too. Even when I'm trying not to do it!

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  12. I think I'm pretty good at spotting them, although I still find the occasional little blighter sneaking past.

    It really bugs me when critiquers deploy their over-sensitive "was" detectors and scream "Passive! Kill!" at every single (correct) use of "was". If you use critique forums, it's worth remembering that not everyone commenting is technically expert, no matter how vehement they are!

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    1. I don't believe "was" is a bad word. Far from it. It's necessary, and pretty gosh darn hard to get rid of. Even though "was" is in the past tense, not every "was" is passive. That's where people are confused, and then they pass on the wrong information to others.

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  13. I majored in English and my grammar course that dealt with passive voice was tricky. Some sentences are tough to convert from passive voice, but I find most are very easy to rearrange.

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    1. Some sentences are tough to convert into active voice, and some you might not even be able to do because it might actually sound better (and make more sense) in passive voice.

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  14. Great post, Chrys. Like many, I struggle with this. I think once we find we are using passive voice, we can fix our sentences. But sometimes, it's too hard to realize we are actually writing them before our edits. Your posts always remind me about how much editing I have to do, lol!

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    1. I struggle with it, too. And probably always will! *sighs* I try to catch it when I'm writing, but I just know when I edit the sequel to Hurricane Crimes, I'm going to find a lot of passive voice.

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  15. I have gotten better at it but it does still sneak in there. Then again, I find in the novels I read by some pretty rich and famous writers too.

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    1. So do I! I guess they get passes for passive voice. ;)

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  16. I turned off the annoying green underling "grammar check" in Word partly because it's convinced passive voice is always a grammatical error. Sometimes it's the best way to express something, and works better than active voice. The "grammar check" must've been created by someone who either doesn't know proper English, or a machine, since they frequently suggest bizarre, completely ungrammatically correct constructions for perfectly correct sentences, with or without passive voice.

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    1. I didn't even know you could turn that off! That's news to me. lol I agree, sometimes it is better, and it's not actually wrong at all. I feel your aggravation because I hate grammar check, too.

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