(For anyone unfamiliar with Ivy, here’s her introduction and an explanation of these posts.)
I was going to give you another update on Moos’s week, but she’s gotten distracted by writing craft debates again. I’d normally tell her less arguing more writing, but when she gets like this it’s best to let her get it out of her system.
Which means I get to transcribe her thoughts on passive voice today (with my own delightful commentary, of course). She wants me to get all technical with color coded explanations about subjects, and objects, and verbs; but no one’s got time for that headache. If you want the complicated version, you’ll have to tell me in the comments. I’ll try not to hate you for it.
Here’s the simple version:
If you can add “by zombies” after the action in a sentence and it still makes sense, that sentence is passive voice. For instance:
“The windows were broken (by zombies).” Passive voice.
“Zombies broke (by zombies) the windows.” Active voice.
Adding “by zombies” to the first sentence still makes sense. Adding it to the second one doesn’t.
So, we get the difference between passive and active voice now, right? Good. Let’s move on.
Here’s where people often get confused (usually because too many writers try to oversimplify writing rules, which is dangerous and stupid; not that I’m judging). A lot of writers like to throw long lists of words around as an explanation of passive voice (and every other writing rule for that matter).
be, being, been, am, is, are, was, were, has, have, had, etc.
First, let me emphasize just how much Moos and I loathe “bad word” lists. Not only is no word inherently bad, but telling new writers to avoid specific words does them a huge disservice. It tells them how to avoid breaking rules without actually explaining those rules to them. (It’s demeaning. Stop it.)
Second, the words listed above are not a diagnosis of passive voice, but merely a symptom. A sentence using passive voice will often include one or two of those words, but using those words does not automatically make a sentence passive.
“The curtain was blue.”
This sentence uses the word “was” so any new writer identifying passive voice with only a list would assume that sentence is passive. But apply the actual definition and you’ll find that the sentence is not, in fact, passive. Observe:
“The curtain was blue (by zombies).”
Add “by zombies” and the sentence doesn’t make any sense. That’s because there is no action in the sentence. No one is doing anything. So using a list of words to identify problems is a dangerous short cut (and just plain stupid if you ask me, which no one did, but I don’t care).
I’m not going to leave you there, though. As I said earlier, telling writers what to avoid without explaining why is dangerous and demeaning to their intelligence. So I’m going to explain why active voice is often preferable to passive voice. (I’m so considerate, aren’t I?)
What it comes down to is reader attention. Just as the opening shot of a film may start with a wide shot before zooming in to the main character to give the viewer context, so a writer’s description can direct a reader’s attention to what’s important.
“The ball was kicked into the wall.” Our focus is on the ball, so without knowing who kicked it, we can’t know what this sentence means for the characters.
“Johnny slammed the ball into the wall.” Now our focus is on Johnny, so the sentence tells us that Johnny is either very frustrated or excited.
Since it’s often preferable to focus on the characters rather than the objects they’re acting on, most of the time active voice will be preferable. But not always. Which brings us to the primary reason simplifying writing rules is dangerous.
Even using active voice, we can’t know how Johnny is feeling without knowing what else is going on in the scene. Without knowing the context it’s impossible to say with absolute certainty whether passive voice or active voice is preferable. Most of the time active voice will work best. But sometimes passive voice is better.
- When the person acting is unknown or needs to remain anonymous. (Perhaps Johnny is a murderer and the detective only sees the ball?)
- When the person acting is irrelevant or the object acted on is more important. (Perhaps the treasure is hiding inside the ball, in which case focusing on the ball will foreshadow the moment the treasure is found?) (Ironically, this example is written in passive voice, as it should be. The focus is on the treasure, so it doesn’t matter that it’s hidden in a ball or who finds it in the end.)
- When no one specific is acting. (“Balls were hitting walls all over the court.”)
I’d like to end all this explanation with that, but I know some of you are still thinking about that list of “bad words.”
“Even if they don’t indicate passive voice, they do make for weaker sentences.”
“Those are still weak words and can be replaced by stronger ones.”
To all those arguments I repeat the importance of context. Take a sentence from one of Moos’s own stories, Winter’s Thaw.
“It had started to snow again.”
Some of the feedback she got marked this sentence as passive. Not only is it not passive (does it make sense if you add “by zombies?”), but the person critiquing failed to consider the context.
They suggested cutting the word “had,” which you’ll notice is on that handy list of “bad words” that too many writers use as a checklist when critiquing. However, if Moos had taken it out, it would have changed the reader’s perception of the whole scene.
“Tabor frowned. Sure enough, it (had) started to snow again. He hadn’t heard the flakes’ tinkling melody over the booming of the icicles.”
The context of that sentence implies that it was already snowing. Cutting the word “had” would have been inconsistent with that context. It would imply that it started snowing at the moment he noticed it, which is incorrect. So she wisely left it in.
(Seriously people. Context. Use it!)
So, that’s passive voice for y’all. Yes, it often makes for weaker writing, but if you consider the context and the purpose for writing rules rather than just the application of them, you’ll be a step ahead of most writers out there.
Now, if you don’t mind, I have a silly writer to get back on schedule.
That’s fall for now. Ivy out.