Every writer fears it. It lurks in hidden places, camouflaged by excellent grammar and adjectives chosen with the utmost care. When you least expect it, it pours oil over the page, slicking it so your readers’ minds slide away into their worries and concerns, where they forget all about your wonderful plot. It’s difficult to avoid in any writing and nigh impossible to eliminate in anything longer than a novellette.
It is the dreaded Passive Voice.
Today, I’m going to teach you how to get rid of it. At some point in time, regardless of what genre you write in, you will come across the “by zombies” trick.
Slogging through your manuscript tacking zombies onto the ends of sentences certainly provides entertaining mental images. It’s about as efficient as zombies, too. The old-fashioned kind, I mean.
Using the zombies method, you go sentence by painstakingly crafted sentence, hoping they’ll pass the test. It is time consuming and frustrating.
That’s right. You can. It’s a simple matter of eliminating certain words from your writing vocabulary.
Okay. Not so simple.
In fact, it’s like going on a restrictive diet: difficult to maintain, easy to give up. Unless you’re allergic to the foods you eliminate. If that’s the case, not eating them makes you more comfortable and you’re motivated to stay away from them.
So, from now on, consider yourself allergic to these words.
These are bad, bad words that do bad, bad things to your writing. Imagine every time you see one in your writing, you break out in hives. Had and have are particular offenders. You’ll need an EpiPen for those two.
Before I give you my challenge, let’s talk about what Active and Passive Voice ARE so we can see why both the zombies and word allergy diet work. (This may seem like a condescending discussion to those of you with a writing degree under your belts. Not all of us are so blessed. If you are, feel free to skip ahead to the challenge.)
“The active voice always names the actor in a sentence (whoever performs the verb’s action), whereas the passive voice puts the actor in a phrase after the verb or even omits the actor altogether.” (Aaron 39)
In simpler terms, if you want to use Active Voice, the subject needs to come before the predicate. (If you’re not sure what subject and predicate are, see the Schoolhouse Rock! video below. I promise I won’t judge.)
- Oya jumped left, the mace missing her by a hairsbreadth. (Oya jumped)
- Just last week, Master made a pair of the men spar for nearly three full days until one of them dropped from exhaustion. (Master made)
- In spite of her weariness, Arvid collected two bags of grain and trudged to the mill. (Arvid collected… trudged)
- Screaming with frustration, she threw herself against a tree and slid to the ground to glare at the beast. (This one’s tricky, because it breaks the rule a little by putting part of the predicate before the subject. Note, however, the primary action, the one you really need to know about, does follow the subject. Screaming… she threw… slid.)
Passive Voice happens when you put your subject after your predicate.
- Having jumped left, Oya was missed by the
macezombies. (jumped… Oya)
- Just last week, three men were made by
Masterzombies to spar for nearly three days until one of them had dropped from exhaustion. (made… Master)
- Two bags of grain had been collected (by
Arvidzombies) and Arvid had trudged to the mill in spite of her exhaustion. (collected… Arvid)
- While she screamed in frustration, a tree had Arvid thrown against it (by zombies) and was then slid down (by zombies). (This one is just a mess. It doesn’t follow the rules but there are allergy words and zombies all over it.)
You can see why Passive Voice is no fun to read. It’s cumbersome, slow, and boring. The fourth sentence is ridiculous when written in Passive Voice. To be fair, according to my handbook, there are instances when you might want to use it, such as when you want to emphasize something other than the subject. (Aaron 40)
The donkey, a stubborn, contrary creature, was loaded (by zombies) with weapons Arvid thought might come in handy.
In this case, I want you to pay attention to the donkey, so I used Passive Voice. In Active Voice, it looks like this:
Arvid loaded the donkey, a stubborn, contrary creature, with weapons she thought might come in handy.
The donkey is still there, but you’re likely thinking more about what Arvid is doing than about the stubborn, contrary creature. I recommend not using this trick. Once you start, it’s hard to stop, and before you know it, you’re writing half your story in Passive Voice. If you really want your reader to focus on the donkey, make the sentence about the donkey.
If you paid attention, you noticed every time I wrote in Passive Voice, I used one or more of the words on the allergy list. In fact, it’s really difficult to write passive voice without one of those itch-inducing words. That’s why the word allergy list works to prevent Passive Voice. As most word processors (including your brain) allow you to search individual words, the list also makes it easier to seek out and destroy passive sentences during the editing process.
Of course, you CAN write active sentences with these words. Most descriptions and speculations include multiple instances of was and had without being passive.
There was no way she could match him without a weapon. Even if he hadn’t been strong enough to lift a cow, his arm reach was almost as long as her legs. By the time she got close enough to cause any significant damage, she’d be too vulnerable herself. She couldn’t count on making it through the circle of men blocking her way to the small square that served as ventilation quickly enough for that to be a viable option, either.
A side perk of using the word allergy list is it forces you to find stronger verbs and helps get rid of useless ones. I bet you’re already thinking of ways to improve the above paragraph. Had, in particular, pops up in sentences that keep their meaning even if you remove the word. It’s a pet peeve of mine.
Arvid stared at the dwindling supply of shineweed she had gathered during the fall.
Arvid stared at the dwindling supply of shineweed she gathered during the fall.
See? Zero change to meaning and yet I see it in people’s writing frequently. Arrrrrrgh!!! Death to all the useless hads!
I’m okay now. Sorry about that.
So there it is. An efficient method for eliminating Passive Voice and why it works. Perhaps not as much fun as chasing zombies around your manuscript, but faster and with the impressive perk of stronger writing. I endeavor to stick to my word allergy elimination diet as often as possible. Like all of you, I’m still learning and growing. In the interest of furthering the development of my craft, I want to see how others handle word allergies. (Selfish, I know. That’s why I’m offering a prize.)
Write a short story between 2000 and 2500 words using none of the words on the word allergy list.
The story must be in past tense. Present tense stories will be disqualified.
If you write anything that might be considered adult content, please, pretty please put a hard-to-miss disclaimer above your story.
Once your story is posted on your blog, come back here and click on the blue froggy to let me know where to find your entry. If you lack a blog, but want to play, click here for instructions for adding Facebook or Twitter links.
$5 Amazon gift card (email delivery)
The Fine Print
Submissions close at 11:55 PM Alaska time on April 16th. Any genre is acceptable. Present tense stories do not qualify and will be removed from the drawing. Multiple entries are allowed but they must each have their own link. Winner selection will be determined by this unfeeling, unbiased random number generator. Numbers are automatically assigned when you add your entry to the linky. The winner will be announced no later than May 16th. In order to receive your prize, you must provide me with a valid email address.
Aaron, Jane E. The Little, Brown Essential Handbook for Writers. 3rd ed. New York: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc, 2000
I took all other quotations from The Queen of Bears by me. (Not by zombies. Zombies don’t write books. Unless you count the authors who live in constant states of sleep-deprivation, guzzling coffee and wishing they knew where to find brains. By those standards, zombies write lots of books and I’m one of them.)