Friday, February 26, 2010

You Can Avoid the Passive Voice

Here are ways to avoid the passive.

1. Read aloud from a hard copy of your manuscript. Whenever you spot a passive verb or a state-of-being verb, circle it in red. That will help you trap those weak verbs and passive statements. Then rewrite the sentence.

2. You can set most computers to flag passive verbs. In Word, under Tools, go to Options and click Spelling and Grammar and go to Writing Style. If you click that, Word will flag the passive voice. (Notice that I didn’t write, "The passive voice will be flagged by Word").

3. Do a global search for particular words. For example, passive words need a helping verb such as was or had. Don't feel you must delete every use. Ask yourself, "Does this work? Is this what I want to say?" (I used is in that sentence.)

State-of-being verbs are useful. That's why they're part of the language.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

There Are No Passive Verbs (Part 2 of 2)

Don’t confuse state-of-being verbs such as am, is, are, to be, and being with the passive voice. Consider the difference between "I sing" (action verb), "I was being taught to sing" (passive voice), and "I am a singer" (active voice with verb of being). Most of the time, those being verbs become invisible. If you refuse to use them, your writing sounds bloated and overwritten.

Sometimes you want to emphasize the state of being: The grass was green. That's an acceptable sentence if we want to emphasize the "isness" of grass. You could say the grass grows green, which is boring, but if it grows purple, I'd like to know. You could overwrite and say the grass stretches from the ground. (Would it come from the sky?) You might try something creative such as: Blades of grass wriggle across the once-barren fields. (Don't they stay in one place?)

If using a strong verb causes you to blink (Huh? What does that mean?), change it. The grass was green makes sense and our eyes pass on quickly. Careful use of state-of-being words is acceptable. (Did you notice the state-of-being verb in the last sentence?)

Good writers know grammar and use the proper terms.

Friday, February 19, 2010

There Are No Passive Verbs (Part 1 of 2)

Call me a curmudgeon, but I hate it when people speak of passive verbs. English verbs have voice (active and passive), tense (present, past, and future), and mood (now limited to the subjunctive to express wishes or things contrary to fact.)

Here are a few sentences where writers used the passive voice and could make it stronger with the active.

• I'm sorry my essay was poorly written. (If you're going to apologize, apologize: I'm sorry I wrote a bad essay.)

• It has been found regrettable that many families lost their homes during the recession. (This is pompous prose. Try: I'm sorry that many families lost their homes during the recession.)

• Chores were not finished. (This dilutes the apology and hedges on the matter of guilt. Isn’t it stronger to write, "We didn't finish our chores"?)

You need to ask, "Does the subject of the sentence do anything or is something done to it?"

When you write in the passive, you weaken the impact and tend to lose the visual image we yearn to create.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Keep Them Active

"I have been honored by you because I have been given this award." The previous sentence, although grammatical, sounds stilted. Twice I used the passive voice with "have been honored" and "have been given."

Now I’ll flip it around and write the sentence in the active voice: "You have honored me because you gave me this award." Both examples are grammatical, but the second is clearer, stronger, more direct, and uses fewer words. That classifies itself as better writing.

We call this the principle: Prefer the active, avoid the passive.

Beginning writers often don’t grasp the importance of this principle. "It reads fine either way," they say. Sometimes they insist, "The passive voice sounds better." They mistakenly assume that the passive voice lends their work authority, perhaps even an elegant quality. In reality, the passive voice sounds pompous or limp. Why not strive for directness and clarity by using as few words as possible?

I want to be clear on the difference. Active refers to someone doing things as opposed to events simply occurring. "Irene delivered the package to Melvin the next morning," compared to, "The package was delivered to Melvin the next morning." Below, not only is the active voice stronger, but the passive voice requires two extra words.

Arlene was infuriated by his behavior. (Passive)

His behavior infuriated Arlene. (Active).

The active voice is stronger and professionals remember that as they write.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Prefer the Active Voice

That's the rule: Prefer. To use the passive voice isn't a grave sin, even though some writers would rather be strangled with a comma splice than use anything but the active voice. It's easier to slavishly impose a rule than it is to express exactly what you mean. Good writing communicates—that's what you want to keep in mind. That means rules bow to good presentation.

When do you use the active voice?

1. Use the active voice when you want to name the person who does the action. Compare these two sentences.

(a) The glass was broken by the baseball.

(b) Marty hit the ball that broke the window.

If we want readers to know the culprit, we would use the second sentence.

2. Use the active voice when you want to speed up the action.

(a) The paper was written by Paul, copied by Marla, and was presented by Eldon.

(b) Paul wrote the paper, Marla copied it, and Eldon presented it.

3. Use the active voice to write shorter sentences. The first sentence below uses nine words and the second only seven. That's not a significant difference in one sentence, but in a book of 500 pages, we might save the life of one tree.

(a) The vegetarian meals were eaten eagerly by the visitors.

(b) The visitors eagerly ate the vegetarian meals.

The active voice reads faster with less chance of misunderstanding. Good writers make reading easy.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

It’s Okay to Tell—Sometimes (Part 5 of 5)

You insert telling statements to break down long speeches. Why punish readers by forcing them to read paragraphs of dialogue that diminish the drama?

Long speeches flatten the writing because they set aside the story’s impact too long.

To illustrate how to break up a lengthy passage, let’s say Michael Silva, who has won the nomination for mayor, makes his speech before an outdoor audience.

"You have chosen me to represent you. You have empowered me to speak for those who have no power! I am ready to make our singular voice heard!"

For seventeen minutes, Michael held the crowd’s attention. He outlined his plan to "roust the fat cats," get rid of porno bookstores, declare war on drugs, and bring integrity back to city hall.

"And if you elect me as mayor," he concluded as he raised his right hand, "you have my solemn word that I will give all my energy to this task."

In writing that scene, I could have cut the lengthy message in several ways. Supporters could have cried out, "That’s right! or "Right on!" Perhaps even had a few hecklers boo. Michael's gaze could have surveyed the crowd. I could have pointed to the darkening clouds overhead or perhaps had the sun's glare in his eyes.

Instead, I chose to insert the telling statement that says he spoke for seventeen minutes. I summarized his message and kept the momentum going.

It is okay to tell—sometimes. Good writers know when to tell and when to show.

Friday, February 5, 2010

It’s Okay to Tell—Sometimes (Part 4 of 5)

You use telling statements to give readers a brief explanation. If your story moves along, and you introduce an unfamiliar element to readers, you can interject a one- or two-sentence explanation and move on.

I once wrote a children’s novel called Happy Face that took place in colonial Kenya, East Africa. Part of my purpose was to show the importance for westerners to learn about the culture. In this scene, Cora, the wife of a rookie missionary, entertains Oko, an African boy.

"Would you like tea, Oko?"

He shakes his head. The white woman has violated tribal custom. If she asks, it means she does not wish to give.

"I make it with nutmeg," Cora says as she stirs her milk-and-spice tea. "You’re sure you don’t want some?"

Again, Oko shakes his head and watches. The aroma of the tea fills the kitchen. He looks away. He cannot tell her he likes the smell of nutmeg better than anything except cinnamon.

In the middle of that scene, I injected a few sentences of pure telling (italicized above). I could have used dialogue. My purpose was not to have Oko correct Cora, but to explain to readers—using telling statements—that the missionary had acted like an ignorant foreigner in an African culture.

You can insert telling information to help readers grasp information quickly.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Another Intrusion from Twila

Before Cec left for his very important underwater basket-weaving class, he said, "Twila, can you put this in as a PS to part 6 of 6 of my blog?" Being the hardworking, always faithful, and compliant helper that I am, I immediately put down my toenail polish, slid the bon-bons to the side, and headed straight to this blog to relay his message.

Cec's update to Hints for Better Showing (Part 6 of 6) ---

Dave emailed me directly by quoting from my blog: "Most of us know writers who sell big but it's in spite of their weak writing...It says he got away with it. Being a best-selling author doesn't equal being an excellent writer."

Dave said, "I find this very disturbing. If the best-selling writers who write poorly are preferred by publishers and readers, it seems the likelihood of an unpublished writer being published is so minuscule that there's almost no hope in trying. At least not in 2010; maybe 30 or 40 years ago."

The point I wanted to make is that a mediocre writer who can market well does better than an excellent writer who doesn’t market. Publishers and agents want excellent writers who are expert marketers. If they can’t get both in the same person, isn’t it natural that they will settle for excellent sales and mediocre writing?

Also, some novelists aren’t outstanding, but their stories grab people who either don’t know quality or they’re willing to overlook the quality because the plot is good.


(Twila sighed with contentment knowing she had accomplished her task. She was impressed that the dear curmudgeon knew so much about writing and was happy she took the time to relay his message to his followers. To reward herself, she grabbed her toenail polish and bon-bons and settled into her easy chair. "I must pace myself," she said. "If I'm not careful, I'll work more than my normal two or three hours this week.")

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

It’s Okay to Tell—Sometimes (Part 3 of 5)

You use telling statements when you need to include minor-but-vital events that aren’t dramatic. The purpose of those scenes is to bring readers up to the present without interfering with the pace.

Suppose Eleanor flies to Europe to seek the proper setting for her new historical novel. You want to let readers know she went to three different places and the fourth one is where the action picks up.

A simple paragraph can bridge the time from her leaving the United States to the moment of action: Seven hours after landing at Charles de Gaule Airport, Eleanor reached the Normandy Coast. After a fruitless day, she left for Zurich where she spent two days. Her Eurail pass took her to Berlin and finally to Brussels.

You need that paragraph of information to authenticate Eleanor's travels. Because nothing dramatic happens until she reaches Brussels, you can leave out three minor scenes. Don't take her through customs or have her struggle with French. Readers don't care. They want her to get to Brussels.

Spare your readers from details they don't need to know.