Passive Writing with Editor John Robin – Sex For Money Post #6

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 writing, which is a sequel to our previous Q&A about passive voice.  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!

Last time you stopped by the blog, we had a discussion about passive voice.  You made an interesting comment in one of your answers; you mentioned that “passive voice” is different than “passive writing.”  Can you tell us what passive writing is?

Passive writing is a very broad category. Essentially, it is any kind of writing that creates a disengaging narrative. I would say that most writers, save the few extremely talented ones who just have a knack for writing strong, begin with passive writing. Through improvement, especially if you have the chance to work with a professional editor on publishing your projects, you learn to eliminate most passive writing conventions and habits.

Sometimes passive writing can be thought of as lazy writing. If you sit down and write whatever comes to you without really drawing on your honed writing skills, then your instinct is to write like you speak or like you think, which is seldom narrative. You often over-describe. You don’t think of what you’re writing as a script that is going to create a picture for a reader, rather, you are just trying to get down the picture you see.

How does passive writing differ from passive voice?

Passive writing is a broad category, of which passive voice is a subcategory. There are many aspects to passive writing, and passive voice is just one of them. Other aspects of passive writing include disembodied description (sometimes called “zombie body parts”), vague description, and weak verbs.

What effect does passive writing have on a book?

Great writing is concrete, specific, active, and a reader’s eyes glide through the details effortlessly, the story taking shape like a three dimensional pop-up book. Passive writing, one the other hand, often takes effort to read.

If we carry forward the idea of your reader creating a picture as they read, then passive writing can be seen as any kind of writing that blurs that picture. You can do everything you want to make sure your story flows smoothly, that there are no contradictions, that it is very interesting and engaging, however, with passive writing, you will lose the sharp edge all those elements have. The result is that many readers will put the book down because it hasn’t grabbed them. This is especially a shame when you have written a great story.

How can we identify passive writing in our writing?

The good news is that passive writing can be converted to active writing with practice and persistence. It’s not magic. There are some key identifiers.

First of all, let’s go back to the idea of passive voice, because the principle is the same. A story must always center on the doer, usually the point of view character who is describing the scene. In passive voice, we see where that doer’s actions on objects are attributed instead to the object, thus losing focus on the doer.

This can happen in the other forms of passive writing. Take disembodied description, for example. Let’s take an example: “Jane’s eyes went to the clock.” Now, that sentence creates a problem, because we have attributed something other than Jane (in this case, her eyes) to something she is doing. Here is an example of the same description, but more active: “Jane glanced at the clock.” Now we see Jane at the center of the action.

The effect of disembodied description is that it takes the emphasis off the doer of an action involving their body parts. Sometimes, when used heavily, it can create quite a grotesque impression for the reader, hence the label “zombie body parts”. I once edited a manuscript where the author spent a paragraph describing someone frowning. It was a drama of facial features, where the eyes, nose, lips, even the forehead were characters. I crossed out the whole paragraph and said “she frowned”, and explained this principle–lesson was learned in that, and we had a good laugh about it afterward.

Vague description and weak verb choices require critical reading to identify. The idea of of these is that they dull the imagery you create with your story.

When you are describing something, if you are vague and general, then you are, in effect, blurring the camera lens. “The sun went down and they got to the river” is far weaker than “The sun sunk into purple clouds by the time they arrived at the river banks.” “She had numerous things hanging from her belt” is far weaker than “She wore a chatelaine, with spoons, small pans, and hunting knives dangling like a metal skirt.” There is no one simple fix for vague description, other than to rethink what you wrote and ask if you can create a more unique, compelling, engaging image.

Related to this, weak verbs are often a culprit in vague description. Take a look at the first example in the above paragraph. There, the verbs are “went” and “got”. Those are very general, weak verbs that pack very little in them. Now look at the revised version: the verbs here are “sunk” and “arrived”, which convey more information. Likewise, in the second example there was only one verb “hanging”, but in revisiting that sentence to make it more active, we not only made that verb more specific–“dangling”–we also introduced the verb “wore”. In that example, however, note that it wasn’t the verb that needed to be sharpened, but the verb general noun “things” (with the general adjective “numerous”). In revisiting this, we gleaned something more specific, and naturally brought our camera into stronger focus.

What are some tips for fixing passive writing?

We saw in the previous example with vague description and weak verbs that the basic idea was to look for general verbs, general nouns, and general adjectives, and ask yourself if you can make them more precise. Similarly, with disembodied description, look for actions that involve body parts and make sure you’re using the verb that shows the doer, not a recounting of what their body parts do to do it. You can often hunt for these spots by searching for commonly used body parts: hands, legs, feet, eyes, mouth, face, lips, arms, or anything else you can think of that you might have used.

Apply that kind of critical thinking, and you’ll see your writing improve greatly.


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!)

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