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March 22, 2011 / theoldsilly

Professor Old Silly’s Tutorial Tuesday – Don’t Be So Passive!

Welcome back to Bloggyversity, English Comp Class 10001.3b, “Writing With Power in Fiction”. Have a seat, as in right now, please. Turn off your ipods, cell phones, black and/or raspberries, stop with the twittering, get your faces out of Facebook, boot up your monitors, adjust your undies, scoot your bums into your seats, and let’s get started.

That’s better, thank you. Ahem. Today’s class is important for making your prose strong and direct in its voice, with the use, primarily, of ‘active’ verbs, rather than ‘passive’ ones. This is also called active or passive ‘voice’.

In the active voice, the subject and verb relationship is straightforward: the subject is a ‘be-er’ or a ‘do-er’ and the verb moves the sentence along. Example: John, acting as temporary president, approved the new budget.

In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is not a do-er or a be-er, but is acted upon by some other agent or by something unnamed. Example: The new budget was approved.

There is nothing inherently ‘wrong’ about passive voice, I mean, it is not grammatically incorrect. But it is considered weak, kind of lame writing. Instead of direct, straightforward, moving the story forward with force and energy like the active voice does, the passive voice sort of lounges around, refusing to commit too strongly to action, and in fact, is often rather dubious as to its absolute veracity. It is somewhat evasive as to direct correlation between the doer and the done, hmm?

This is why we find an abundance of passive voice in sentences created by corporate lawyers protecting their clients’ business interests, pompous, eloquent and lofty educators, and grandiose, histrionic military writers — who use the passive voice to avoid responsibility for their actions.

For instance, where you might read (in passive voice): “Cigarette ads were designed to appeal especially to children,” which technically places the burden on the ads, not the company who created and paid for the ads, — you will probably never read the statement, in active voice: “We designed the cigarette ads to appeal especially to children,” in which “we” (the company) accepts responsibility.

Now passive voice is not inherently evil, not at all. It does have good and legitimate purpose in the appropriate literary place. Passive voice is, for instance, considered preferable–even mandatory–in scientific or technical writing or lab reports, where the actor is not really important but the process or principle being described is of ultimate importance.

There are also a couple situations in which passive voice is considered best to use in prose, so don’t throw it away altogether in your fiction penning quill of arrows.

1. When it is more important to draw our attention to the person or thing doing the action or being acted upon.

Example: The budget already had been approved by that phony, narcissistic stand-in, John!

2. When the actor in the situation is not important.

Example: The budget having already been approved, ‘by whom’ was a moot point.

So in conclusion, keep your verbs for the vast majority of the time ‘active’ in voice. Most publishing houses want no more than 5% passive voice in any manuscript submission. Word has a splendid search tool to find passive voicing in your manuscript; so use it, and find ways to rewrite those lazy, deceptive, evasive, ‘passive’ voices into direct, powerful, take-full-responsibility-for-the-action active voicing.

That’s it for today, class, blog dismissed. Leave your comments on my desk, as usual, and please stop in tomorrow – the Old Silly has a Hilarious Hump Day post ready for y’all that is literally a hilarious one!



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  1. Arlee Bird / Mar 22 2011 7:35 am

    Another thing for me to watch for more carefully. I have a feeling that I have many passives sprinkled throughout my writings.

    Tossing It Out
    Twitter hashtag: #atozchallenge

    • theoldsilly / Mar 22 2011 9:18 am

      Ah yes, lying passively about in there, hmm? 😉

  2. Cactus Annie / Mar 22 2011 7:57 am

    I think I finally got it clear, now – the active and passive thing. Your classes are always so illustrative with the examples you give, really helps – thanks Prof Old Silly! 🙂

  3. Simon Hay / Mar 22 2011 7:58 am

    This is something that I struggled with. I’ve spent days finding and replacing passive prose. One day I’ll have it sorted. Take care, my friend. I’m on a break in Rochester NY so I’m blog hopping 🙂

    • theoldsilly / Mar 22 2011 9:19 am

      Enjoy the east coast part of your US visit, Simon – make sure and do Manhattan while you’re out there!

  4. Ron Berry / Mar 22 2011 9:13 am

    I’m an introvert so I don’t admit to being anywhere and passive voice allows me to do that.

    Does that count as an excuse, er, reason?

    • theoldsilly / Mar 22 2011 9:22 am

      Hmm, introvert, eh? Not an excuse, no, but … a reason, maybe? Nah, look here:

      Ron declined to write with active voice because of his introverted personality.

      is still better than to write-

      Writing with active voice was declined by the introvert.

      Get my drift? 😉

  5. Stanley Berber / Mar 22 2011 9:23 am

    Good lesson, Prof. Made a fuzzy area of writing (to me) rather lucid. Think I got it now! 🙂

  6. Karen Walker / Mar 22 2011 9:25 am

    Good lesson, as always. I am guilty of this particular issue since I came from a PR background. Have to work hard at keeping it active.

    • theoldsilly / Mar 22 2011 9:32 am

      PR, eh? That would make sense, your struggle to convert to more active prose. But you’ll get it, Karen! 🙂

  7. Thelma Banks / Mar 22 2011 9:30 am

    Hey – good lesson, as always, but ……… where’s the lovely Ms. Flanders, and the goodies she always makes for you to serve us after class? We expect certain things when we come to class, Prof! And it’s YOUR fault for spoiling us!

    Teheee … 🙂

    • theoldsilly / Mar 22 2011 9:33 am

      Oh dear – I do apologize? (see how responsibly active that response was?) 😉

  8. Marcus Franks / Mar 22 2011 12:53 pm

    I understood the lesson. (active)

    The lesson was understood. (passive)

    Do I get a gold star? 😉

  9. Barbra Kelser / Mar 22 2011 12:54 pm

    I like the way you show by example. Really helps me understand writing and literature better. Good class as usual, Old Silly! 🙂

    • theoldsilly / Mar 22 2011 12:57 pm

      Thanks, Barb – and next week I promise to have some fresh baked goodies after class, too. 😉

  10. Enid Wilson / Mar 22 2011 2:55 pm

    Perhaps a shy person will use more passive voice…Thanks for the class.

    Bargain with the Devil

  11. Elizabeth S. Craig / Mar 22 2011 3:51 pm

    Another great lesson, Marvin! Am tweeting. 🙂

  12. Kathleen / Mar 22 2011 4:07 pm

    Where is this word tool you speak of???? I need it.

    • theoldsilly / Mar 23 2011 6:13 am

      Kathleen – actually I mispoke on that. While there is no “find passive voice” tool, you CAN ‘find’ cases by doing a ‘search’ for all ‘was’ and ‘had been’ kinds of past tense qualifiers of verbs. That will take you to most cases of passive voices where you can then consider rewriting in active voice.

      Hope that helps! 🙂

  13. Doris Plaster / Mar 22 2011 9:13 pm

    What a great lesson.

    Thank you so much! 🙂


  14. Helen Ginger / Mar 22 2011 9:40 pm

    Converting every passive “voice” would be very difficult. But you can do a lot of it. Try having Word highlight every “was” in the book and give it a try.

    • theoldsilly / Mar 23 2011 6:14 am

      Good point, Helen – thanks for contributing to class! 😉

  15. tashabud / Mar 24 2011 5:06 pm

    Great lesson, Prof. Old Silly.

    Unfortunately, I’m guilty of this “no, no” writing rule. For some reason, it’s more natural for me to write in the passive voice than in the active voice. Then during self-editing, I spend so much time converting all the “passives” into “actives”.

    I’ve been trying to train my brain to think in the active voice. I hope it would help.

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