Saturday, August 20, 2005

A Passive Voice

Avoid passive voice.
We know that, don't we? It's the same stale advice dealt out like peanut butter sandwiches around the table to hungry writers. Nearly every interviewed editor and agent, and every last living "How To Write" author describes "passive voice" as the top item most likely to make them heave their lunch. And your manuscript. Out the door.
Passive voice makes even Stephen King gag.
Have just read King's On Writing - a vital engaging book, particularly for those, like me, who have finished an ms. His advice has immediacy when one is self-editing.
So why don't we listen up? King thinks it's because we're chicken. He talks about fear. Of course he would. If King is right, one can expand the concept and claim timorous believers are afraid to assert something to our imaginary god-friends, the invisible editors. If we are good little worshippers, we may evade the thunderbolt. Rebellion, you know. Impudence. However, editors are not in our image. If we assume passivity in our writing we've mis-interpreted the voice from on high. Our devout prayers will instead attract the usual jovian wrath. Zot.
And then there are those of us who immediately begin smelting up a golden calf instead of red penning our fiction. We're too busy checking off instances of passive usage in the writing of those who tell us not to use it? Casual evidence of editorial hypocrisy does not invalidate the scripture. Mind you, it's fun, but inevitably futile. We're a juvenile lot. We're looking for adolescent excuses for not doing our homework. We're sly, in an arrogant and bewildered sort of way.
Sometimes passive voice is appropriate and effective. Editors know that. They expect us to know when. It is not their job to furnish us with the exceptions and not their job to teach us style. So editors, the de facto gods, are giving us a general rule. They are not flourishing commandments in stone. They are not saying, fortunately, that a single instance of passivity in our sample pages or first three chapters will consign us forever to slush pile hell. Nor are they saying as an absolute dictum that every is-am-are-was word is unclean. Not usually, though I swear I saw one who did. I would have serious trouble with that. I don't think "being" is at all passive. I feel quite Heidiggerian about it. At the worst, it's neutral.
Learn about passive voice. Learn when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em. Most of the time, it's fold.

6 comments:

Muse said...

Heideggerian indeed!

ScaramoucheX said...

Bernita, I want to tell you,the Snark scares the hellot of me! But I think I need to hear what she says, though she is my nemesis...I am sorting through this post of yours. Any advice for someone who loves to write but hates to edit? And: can you tellme why it is that writing alone of allthe arts is the one subjected to the editing process? I mean, who edited Beethoven? Rodin?
You are welcome to visit my blog, I 'd love to hear a comment from someone who is struggling with editing...I just wrote somethings tonight about it.

Bernita said...

Scaramouchex, thank you for dropping by.
Miss Snark shouldn't scare you. Have you noticed how direct and honest she is when the subject involves a writer being ripped off?She does not mince words. That sort of response is to be cherished like gold.
Regarding editing: One displays a truly remarkable conceit if one thinks they are above editing.I take it one thing at a time in a long work: checking for excessive passivity first because correcting that particular veniality can result in making whole paragraphs more direct and vital, ie. it relates to structure. I rather like editing.
You know very well that nearly every artist and musician went through apprenticeship of one form or another, which involved an appropriate form of "editing." Do not suggest that such geniuses were found under cabbage leaves. It's not honest. Perhaps honesty is the first thing a writer has to learn. Editing involves questioning oneself as one inspects the veins and nerves traced out on the page. Some people swallow and get on with the autopsy, while others make excuses and rush off to yet another assignment. Your choice,

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