Pass(ive)ing the Buck
This weekend, I had the chance to speak with a good writer friend of mine. While discussing our writing, the issue of passive voice surfaced (again). I know I’ve spoken about this before, but it’s been a while, and I thought it might be nice to touch on it again.
If you’re unfamiliar with the passive voice, here’s a quick run-down. It’s a type of sentence construction that uses the object of the verb as the subject of the sentence. I like to use this example to show the difference:
(Active voice) The car hit the boy.
(Passive voice) The boy was hit by the car.
Notice the shift in the tone of the sentence? The passive voice softens the verb. Here, we should be horrified by the situation. A car ruthlessly ran over a boy. Instead, with the passive voice, the thing doing the hitting (the car) follows the verb, which softens the action.
This can be problematic for several reasons. The first of which is this: too many words. If you’ve done much writing, you know that a large portion of editing and revising has to do with cutting words out. The passive voice inherently adds words (specifically was or were and by). The second problem is this: our characters need to be active. Even in verb tense. To demonstrate, I’ll show you a paragraph, one almost exclusively in passive voice, the other in active. You tell me which is stronger.
(Passive) Her cheek was wet with the rain slipping from the sky. The horse was guided by her feet toward the cliff. She was scared, but she didn’t want to say anything. She wanted to go home, where she was loved.
- (Active) Rain slipped from the sky and wet her cheek. Her feet dug into the sides of the horse, pinching them, guiding the animal toward the cliff. She swallowed the fear rising up her esophagus, refused to allow it a voice. Love waited for her at home, and her heart longed to return.
Notice how many times I used the word was in the first paragraph? Four, or those of you keeping score at home. Compared to how many times I used it in the second? Zero.
Of course, the second sounds stronger. Admittedly, I had more difficulty coming up with the second, but that’s okay. It’s a little like exercise for the writer. It stretches our brains, forces us to come up with stronger ways of relaying information. An additional bonus, it’s easier for the reader to get through. Instinctively, we like the active voice. We like active characters.
On your revisions, make sure you take a pass at your manuscript with an eye for the passive voice. Search your document for every instance of was and were. While some are necessary, I think you’ll find most can be replaced after a careful revision of the sentence.