Sex For Money is a semi-regular blog series about my experiences in writing, publishing, and marketing gay erotica and M/M erotic romance. All of this information is from my own experience, so your experience may differ. It’s hoped that sharing this information might be helpful to new and aspiring erotica and erotic romance authors, as I see a lot of questions and a lot of misinformation out there. To read more Sex For Money posts, click here.
Today I have the great pleasure of hosting my editor, John Robin, for a quick Q&A on passive voice in writing. John is a freelance editor over at Story Perfect Editing Services and has worked with me on all my self-published works. (And I don’t think he’s blushed once, no matter how filthy my sex scenes get!) John is also hard at work on his epic fantasy novel, Blood Dawn.
So, without further ado, welcome to the blog, John!
Passive voice can be thought of in many ways. Usually writers who have done their research will get to know about passive voice in its simplest form: where emphasis is placed on the object having an action done on it.
Passive voice comes about because of transitive verbs. Transitive verbs are verbs that have a subject (doer) and an object (recipient). For example, I opened the door. Here, opened is a transitive verb. I am the subject. I am doing an action (opening) on the door. If I want to write that sentence passively, I would say “The door was opened by me.” I could also just say, “the door was opened.”
The problem with this is that it hides the doer, who is often a point of view character, or a character who is being seen by your point of view character. We don’t care about the door. In a story, we care about the person going through the door.
Passive voice is one component of a broader editorial consideration, passive writing. In general, passive writing flattens a story and slows your reader down. Great writing makes use of strong verbs in their proper form and for complex actions, the doer is still clearly visible. But passive writing is its own topic and that can be for another time.
What are some tips for identifying passive voice in writing?
If you look at the passive example above with the door, notice that the “by me” is optional. This is one sneaky way that the passive voice can hide in your sentences. It is the source of the little “by zombies” trick. Some of you might be familiar with this: if you can add “by zombies” to a sentence, then it is passive. For example, “Conversations were had” (by zombies).
One other cheat is to search for “were” and “was”. Often you will find verbs in the following for: was [verb]ed, or were [verb]ed. For example, “The passage was opened”. Notice that the by zombies rule works here too, but it’s hard to search for parts of your manuscript by using this rule, whereas typing “were” and “was” in your search box in Word, then taking a tour of your manuscript that way allows you to focus on the sentence where these words are to see if these sentences are passive.
A related point, since I’ve touched on passive writing: sentences where you can find “was [verb]ing” or “were [verb]ing” can also be passive. For example, “She was running down the street.” In this case, this is NOT passive voice, but it is passive writing, because third person limited point of view should use simple past tenses to feel active. In this case, I’d correct such a sentence to read: “She ran down the street.” Ran is simple past of the verb “to run”. Was running is the progressive past. Effectively, this puts the present action you are conveying for your reader further in the past, creating a sense of distance between what’s happening in the story and the reader. This is considered passive because it weakens the narrative strength and the immediacy of the prose.
So put those in your tool bag. Simply searching “were” and “was” can be a powerful aid, even though you will have to be patient in doing so because these words will be found hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times in your manuscript.
A caveat, of course, is that you should never use such a search to just eliminate all these words. Instead, utilize this as an opportunity to zoom in to candidate spots where you might find passive voice or passive writing. For example, you might find, “The sun was setting in the west when they arrived in the valley.” Here, you want to keep that was. Why? Because it’s not passive. Here the important action is in the verb “arrive”. Why’s that? Because the characters are arriving. The sun is not the character. So when we say “the sun was setting”, we’re setting up a progressive action that frames the important action done by “them” (your characters). On the other hand, if the sentence read, “The sun was setting in the west when they were arriving in the valley,” then there’s a passive form that needs to be corrected. Do you see the difference between this sentence and the previous one and how it has the effect of “blurring” the camera lens of your story? It’s really hard to focus on that phrase “they were arriving in the valley” because we can’t pin our characters down to a concrete moment in time. Whereas “they arrived in the valley” has a sense of immediacy to it.
The take home point to this caveat is this: eliminating passive writing is not a simple find/replace tactic, but is a very deep, thoughtful process, requiring you to think about exactly how you are describing actions to your reader.
How can we get rid of passive voice?
Although it is tedious work, if you want to eliminate the passive voice, then you need to think about every verb you write. With practice, you will think differently about verbs. In fact, I often challenge writers I work with to think of better verbs. There are so many, but in practice we use so few of them. Instead of saying, “He spoke with great force,” why not say, “He shouted”? Getting in the habit of asking with every sentence you write what action you are trying to convey will help you realize the wide scope of verbs you have available and ways to describe it. Do you want, “She stamped her feet, shouted, pounded her fist on the table with red-cheeked fury”, or do you want, “She raged”? That depends on how much you want to zoom the camera in on your characters.
Being more verb conscious is one sure way to kill not only passive voice usage, thus making your fiction more active and pulling your reading along relentlessly (because it feels like the movie camera is on), but this also allows you to kill passive writing, or at least aspects of it. As I said, there are more issues involved with passive writing which go deeper than verb usage, so for now let’s just think about verbs, and as a writer if you can start trying to think about verbs and improving how you use them, you’ll be off to a great start.
Any last comments or tips for us?
Active writing is one thing that gives fiction a professional edge. Tackling issues of passive writing is a sure way to make your fiction stand out above fiction which might have just been quickly edited to fix grammar and typos. Active writing is strong and not only gives your story a professional punch, but also seizes hold of your reader, regardless of the content. It’s not magic, there is no special charm, it’s simply mastery of sentences, more precisely, mastery of how to use verbs.
One way I have come to appreciate the conversion process of making passive writing active, is in a metaphor. Imagine the manuscript you wrote as a garden full of weeds. There are beautiful things in that garden, but under all the passive sentences and descriptions, your beautiful images and emotions will hide. Meticulously hunting for passive writing and activating these spots is like pulling out all those weeds and ensuring every part of your garden is pristine. In the case of your story, activating your writing will ensure that your reader is pulled into your narrative with every sentence. Active writing does not give your reader the option to skim because it is so sharp it demands to be read. And if you write books that demand to be read, you’ll not only please your readers, but will have them eager to read more.
Thanks for joining us on the blog today, John! For readers who enjoyed this post, keep an eye on my blog because John will return periodically for these Sex For Money posts.
And if you’d like to learn more about John, you can find out more about his editing services over at Story Perfect Editing Services, and you can learn more about his epic fantasy novel, Blood Dawn, on his blog. (He is crowdfunding the publication of Blood Dawn through Inkshares – a new publishing model that combines the control of self-publishing and the power of traditional publishing – and could use your help. Click here to find out more!)