Tuesday, July 13, 2010



Hello, and welcome. Come on in and make yourself at home. There's coffee and tea on the table along with cookies and donuts. Help yourself.

Today I'm going to talk about two more writing rules.

If you're like me, your head is probably spinning with all the writing rules we must learn. And learn we must if we desire to write a great short story or novel. A story or novel we hope will one day become published.

Just when I think I've mastered yet another rule, up pops another one. I'm worried I won't have enough room in my brain to hold it all.

Last week I touched on point of view, tense, and show versus tell. This week I'd like to address passive voice and redundancy. Two rules I'm still struggling with.

Back in the beginning stages of writing, I had no idea what passive voice meant. In fact, I'd never heard of it until I received my first critique. My manuscript came back filled with sentences, highlighted in yellow, with the comment, you tend to use a lot of passive sentences. Using active voice instead of passive voice will liven up your writing.

I was confused--baffled. What's passive voice? What's active voice?

Not wanting to appear like the amateur I was—though my writing said it all—I decided to research passive voice and its meanings on my own instead of asking my critique partner what she'd meant.

First, I looked up the word, passive in the dictionary. Definition: acted upon, not acting; submissive; denoting the voice of a verb whose subject receives the action.

Does this clear things up for you? Well, it didn't for me, so I continued with my research and goggled passive voice. I read almost everything I could find on the subject—and there is a lot of info--until it started to make sense.

Simplified, passive voice moves the object of the sentence to the subject's place, drawing attention to the object.

Here are a couple examples of sentences using passive voice.

The wagon was pulled by the horse.

The ball was hit by the boy.

Both are grammatically correct, but both place more emphasizes on the process rather then who is preforming the action.

Let's have a closer look at the first example and find the subject, object and verb.

The wagon was pulled by the horse. The object in this sentence is the wagon, and the subject is the horse, and the verb is pulled. So to make this sentence active, let's move the subject to its proper place.

The horse pulled the wagon. Now this is a more active sentence.

Let's look at my second example. The ball was hit by the boy. Again, we'll move the subject back to its proper place.

The boy hit the ball. Active, clear and to the point with fewer words. Active gives more power to writing and is more direct.

When I went back over my manuscript, I realized by using passive voice, some of my sentences were unclear, not telling the reader who or what performed certain actions. So out came my red pen . . . again.

Like every rule, there are exceptions. Not all passive sentences are bad, evil. There is a time and place to use passive voice. The trick is to know when.

So, you may ask, when is it correct to use passive voice?

The correct time and place to use passive voice is if the subject of the verb isn't as important as what is happening, or when attention needs to be focused more on the person or thing--object-- acted upon. Also, when the person or subject is not important or to self-evident to mention.

What I have discussed here is just the tip of the iceberg. There's much, much more to be learned about passive voice. If you'd like more information, there are many wonderful sites, full of everything you ever wanted or needed to know. Type in passive voice, hit search, and happy reading.

I will leave you a short list of words to help you spot the use of passive voice in your writing.

Forms of to be verbs: Is, are, am, was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, and being.

Another problem I'd come across in my writing is redundancy, which can lead to wordiness.

The word redundant means: no longer necessary, surplus, excessive. So applied to writing it is when you use to many words, repeating what you have already stated.

Here are a few examples of redundant sentences I'd found in my own writing. He shrugged his shoulders. She blinked her eyes. He raced quickly across the yard.

To say, 'his shoulders' is redundant since when one shrugs, it's already implied the shoulders are doing the shrugging. Same goes for, she blinked her eyes. We don't need, 'her eyes.' Eyes are the only body part that blinks. I think.

As for, he raced quickly across the yard, we don't need quickly. The word, raced, expresses he is moving quickly.

He shrugged. She blinked. He raced across the yard. All are clear, direct, and to the point with less words.

I leafed through my manuscript, looking for words, sentences and even paragraphs that imparted the same information. I also searched for two or more chapters that essentially achieved the same thing.

Remember, the best way to learn all the many rules--learn how and when to use them--is by writing.

Until then, happy writing.


Charli Mac said...

Sister Saint Joan of Arc, I feel like I am back in ILA (Intergrated Language Arts). Well done. Very well done. I received a crit where many unecessary phrases were deleted. Read another blog about word economy, that author's should chose each word with distinct purpose. One clue to see if you are to free with words is the prepositional phrase.

Joe jumped from the desk and rolled to miss the bullet whizzing by.

Well, delete from the desk. I am sure if I am reading the novel, I know Joe is already there. Rewrite the last phrase, to miss the bullet should be obvious when we are SHOWN it is whizzing by.

Joe jumped, the bullet whizzed past as he rolled under his desk.

Now its still not perfect, not sure I like it but I definitely feel the action as it happens. Not reading it after.

Brenda said...

LOL, thanks C. Yeah, when I first started writing...holy crap, did I have a lot to learn--still do--but all the rules and regs are starting to stick in my brain.
Your example is perfect. You cut words and used the show don't tell rule!