Passive Voice – the infection lurking in your writing
I do a fair bit of editing for people; more as a favour than in any paid capacity and passive voice is my pet hate. I love reading and figure it’s not that hard to poke my finger on my Kindle screen and add a note for someone if it will improve their novel. I’ve said this before but I get mixed responses; some authors say thanks and we become friends, some run screaming in the other direction and accuse me of…all sorts of weird and wonderful things.
I hadn’t been publishing long when a lovely children’s author private messaged me on Facebook.
‘You use far too much passive voice,’ she said. ‘I’m finding your novel unreadable.’
I felt devastated. When I’d mopped up my tears I hit Google and gave myself a crash course in passive voice, what causes it, how it manifests and what effect it has on how the reader engages with a novel. I became the passive voice assassin in my own work and my need to destroy it spread to the writing of others. I now dislike it so much, I grind my teeth reading something riddled with passive voice. It doesn’t need to be there and its presence gets on my nerves.
Passive voice acts as a disease in literature, undermining everything the writer attempts to convey.
The writer paints their beautiful, stunning picture, standing back to admire their masterpiece, while passive voice sneaks behind them like a naughty child with a pot of black paint, ruining the best parts just because it can – and because the writer forgot to look behind them at what might be going on.
How does it work?
It’s subtle and sneaky. The writer builds tension. The reader steps up for a closer look at the action. They want to absorb the excitement without being damaged, covered in stuff or noticed. But they want to be there, looking over the main character’s shoulder and shouting advice.
What the reader wants is this.
‘Jack’s feet slipped in the slick mud, his shoes grappling without gaining grip. He cried out in pain as the hot breath of his pursuer fried the hairs on the back of his neck. Memories flashed through his mind; his editor’s face the last time they met and his co-author with her handkerchief dabbing at stray tears. The thing swooped and Jack’s breath caught with the violent backward jerk on his shirt collar. The Passive Voice monster showed scant mercy as it laughed, hurling Jack into the pit of author despair and slavering over the remains of his novel as it reduced it to drivel. Jack’s final cry bounced off the walls of the pit and reverberated around the cavern until it faded into a distant wail. “What’s passive voiiiicccce?”’
What passive voice does is inhabit blocks of information, particularly those without speech. It hides in back story like a streptococcus infection and stays undetected until the reader walks through. It shows no preference for first or third person perspective but relishes past-past tense like a free chocolate feast. Past-past tense is where the reader is writing in the past anyway, but needs to convey something else which stretches beyond that timeline. I might write as though my novel is set last week, but need to let the reader know of an event that affected my character somewhere in the distant past; last year, last decade, somewhere just beyond the scope of the novel. That’s another hiding place for passive voice; chunks of writing which aren’t just back-story but information dumps of all other kinds.
Here’s what passive voice might do to my paragraph above.
‘Jack’s feet were sliding in the slick mud, his shoes grappling without being able to gain any grip. He began to cry out in pain as the hot breath of his pursuer started frying the hairs on the back of his neck. Memories were flashing through his mind; his editor’s face the last time they met and his co-author whose handkerchief was dabbing at stray tears. They had been friends for so long and now he had let them down. The thing swooped and the backward jerk on Jack’s shirt collar made his breath catch in his chest. The Passive Voice monster would not show any mercy as it laughed, hurling Jack into the pit of author despair and beginning to slaver over the remains of his novel as it reduced it to drivel. Jack’s final deathly cry bounced off the walls of the terrifyingly empty cavern and reverberated until it was a far off wail. “What’s passive voiiiicccce?”’
Now, already I can hear keyboards tapping as other authors want to take issue with my very loose use of the term passive voice. I’ve added heaps of unnecessary words into that last example because we all have different ways of pushing the reader back out of the action and keeping them at arm’s length.
After the author messaged me and I’d done my Googling with a wobbly bottom lip, I went through the manuscript she experienced the issue with and searched two very innocuous words.
There were thousands of them and I forced myself to go through the whole thing, taking out those I couldn’t justify. In a novel of over 150,000 words I finished with around 600 instances of each and the difference their absence made was nothing short of spectacular.
He had gone to the mall. – No! He rode to the mall, he walked to the mall, he skipped to the damn mall. I don’t care what he did there, but passive voice just dismissed a significant sentence with one of its best weapons. My character went somewhere and the reader glossed over it because I hid it in a passive-round-about-description which said very little.
The invisible word – that.
Well, what can I say about this weapon of choice? It sneaks in because we overuse it in our speech. “I said that I would do it this afternoon.” No! “I said I’d do it this afternoon.”
It’s as though our lazy way of communicating face to face has followed us into our writing and disabled it from the inside. It’s ruined more reading experiences for me in the last 2 years than I want to think about and when I treated myself to a bestseller on Christmas Day to read in the bath, I found passive voice in there!
In the book, not the bath. I need to point that out.
Editors don’t seem to pull it and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s outside their remit or they’re looking for typos and blatant misuse of grammar instead. But I wish they’d draw attention to it.
Another one for you is – was. It’s a biggie.
He was going, he was looking, he was stinky. No! He went, he looked, he stank. What’s so hard about this?
Definitely check the frequency of was in sentences. It’s probably one of the worst hidden culprits.
Passive voice is a distraction for the reader. It’s like inviting them to a party and then making them watch through the window. They’ll get bored, find the thing too heavy-going and leave without you noticing, despite your honest belief they’re having a great time with their nose pressed against the glass. You’re having a ball. Why’d they leave? How rude.
Investigating my own passive voice revealed different triggers to those used by another writer. We’re all individuals clanging around in the author world and what sets me off wouldn’t even ruffle your feathers. I’m an introvert, I don’t like big groups and hate people looking at me, noticing me or drawing attention to me. It comes out in my writing when I add words to buffer the reader from the action.
‘I began to…’
‘She started to…’
There’s nothing wrong with these sentences in themselves and there’s a place for them, just like any other. But I used them subconsciously to deflect the reader’s attention from me, which meant I removed them from the action. BECAUSE I WAS IN THE THICK OF THE ACTION – WRITING IT.
It’s my trigger. It could be yours but you might have something else. Wordiness is my big challenge and according to one of my beta readers, the latest in my Russian series is written differently to any of my first offerings. It’s crisper, cleaner and there’s no fluff, wordiness or passive voice.
Look, there are times when all these things are perfectly fine. Adverbs have their place until they become nauseating. Your child’s painting might be beautifully, wonderfully, thoughtfully put together and they squeeze their eyes up in pleasure when you run those words together in a sentence just for them. But your reader won’t. They’ll press the little house button on their eReader and get into someone else’s book. They’ll buy the next in their series; not yours.
Using speech is engaging for a reader. Instead of writing pages and pages of back story to show the poor reader who’s who, why they’re there and what they had for tea on the first Wednesday of the new year; use speech. Engineer an argument between two people or a discussion which covers those issues in a much more interesting way. Your reader will get a bigger kick from overhearing a conversation filled with passion and juicy gossip by standing with the characters; than having the most boring person in the world sit them down and document their genealogy including birth experiences and every moment since. As I’ve got older and less patient, I find myself glancing down a page on my Kindle and reacting to a wall of words. I skim read at first and then resort to skipping whole sections.
That’s what passive voice does; it makes great work really boring.
I’m grateful to the author who didn’t finish one of my first books and didn’t give it the stonkingly awful review it deserved at the time. She presented me with a massive opportunity to change how I write and it took courage for her to approach me. I purchased ProWritingAid and made it my mission to nuke those books to Kingdom Come and still suspect there’s more in there. I write as best I can without my trigger faults, but that’s through practice and a sense of revulsion when I see them there on the page. I know if I let them in; they’ll breed and I’ll never get them out.
Nobody ever mentioned passive voice whilst keeping me prisoner in the English education system. Nor did they think to raise it during my English degree. Yet the more I write and the wider my reading choices take me, I find it’s the single most invasive feature of many contemporary works. It truly is the infection of our age, eating through our plots and scenes with the same detachment with which we perform most activities nowadays.
Don’t give the Passive Voice monster page room, not in any of its forms. Find it, change or delete it and for goodness sake, stop repeating it.