Writing Active Prose with Margo Bond Collins

May 13, 2015

Today I welcome writer Margo Bond Collins to share a bit on writing active voice.

Writing Active Prose

photo 1(2)Over and over again, writers hear about the value of “active” writing, and I know a lot of us have spent countless hours trying to find ways to make our writing more active. The very easiest way to do that is actually grammatical.

One of the most common problems I see in writing of all levels is the overuse of passive voice. After I finish a story and am ready to revise at the sentence level, the first thing I do is eliminate most instances of passive voice.

What is passive voice?

The easiest way to recognize the most common forms of passive voice is to check for any form of “to be” (is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been) followed by a past participle (a past-tense verb, usually—but not always—ending in -ed).

These sentences are in passive voice:

The car was crashed by the driver.

The dog is going to be walked by my friend while I’m out of town.

The dress will be sewn by the seamstress.

Why is passive voice a problem?

First, it obscures the actor of a sentence. When I’m teaching this concept to my college students, I always call it “politician-speak.”  No politician would say, “I raised your taxes” (active voice). Instead, he or she might say, “Taxes were raised” (passive voice).  In that second sentence, the actor–the person doing the action of raising taxes–is left out entirely.

Second, passive voice inflates prose, bulks it up and makes it less clear and concise. Don’t believe me? Check out these song lyrics, changed from active to passive voice, and note how ridiculous they sound!

Because what is wanted by all of us is to be big rockstars / With hilltop houses lived in by us, fifteen cars driven by us.

Biting is done by love, bleeding is done by love / I am brought to my knees by it / living is done by love, dying is done by love / no one is surprised by it

Last thing remembered by me, the door was being run for by me / A passage had to be found back to place that was inhabited by me before / ‘Relax,’ was said by the night man. . .

A lonely world, lived in by just a small town girl, / the midnight train was taken by her anywhere it was going

See the issue? In order to clarify who does the action, we have to add “by ___” to the phrases. The sentences become bulky and inelegant rather than crisp and clear.

That’s not to say passive voice is always a problem. Sometimes you simply don’t know who did the action (Our house was burgled).  Or the specific actors don’t matter or are common knowledge (The pyramids were built in Egypt. The president was elected by a landslide).  Or you want to emphasize the recipient of an action (Jim was kicked by Joe).

How to eliminate passive voice?

You can usually revise these sentences by dropping the “to be” form, then reworking so the actor is the subject of the sentence. Thus “Jim was kicked by Joe” (if you don’t mean to emphasize the recipient) becomes “Joe kicked Jim.”

When I’m revising, I run searches for all forms of “to be,” and then deal with each sentence individually.  Not all examples of “to be” verbs are passive voice, so I ignore those, focusing only on the ones followed by a past participle. Once I complete these changes, I proofread to make sure I’m happy with the result.

Eliminating passive voice isn’t necessarily easy, but the more you practice, the better you’ll become–and the stronger your writing will be!

Feel free to practice on the song lyrics above–check out how much better the original active-voice lyrics are.  Then spend some time watching for passive voice in everything you read. Pretty soon, you’ll be finding—and correcting—passive voice in all kinds of unexpected places!

Happy writing!

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