Sunday, February 10, 2013

Selective Hearing

“Passive.” “I’ve circled your passive verbs.”

Pay attention when your critique group says, “Use active voice.” It’s good advice--usually. But if your fellow writers think the passive voice exemplifies mortal sins, Donald Maass in his book, The Career Novelist: A Literary Agent Offers Strategies for Success, has tossed out his ticket to heaven. On page 28 he writes: “that means as few as 19 are chosen for this limited appraisal.” Again on page 130 we see “the plan is formed.” And those are just two examples of the passive voice in his book.

So, does Donald Maass just write what he wants in any fashion because he’s a famous literary agent and can throw anything on the page? Not at all. The passive voice occupies an important place in speaking and writing. Try to substitute every passive verb, and you’ll produce awkward and wordy prose.

In fact, use of the active voice could cause legal problems for a writer. For example, a writer says “John Jones, dropped the bomb killing 200.” John Jones’ family could sue the writer who accused their loved one of killing all those people. Perhaps that’s why documentaries use the passive so much. “The bomb was dropped, apparently causing 200 casualties.” Listen to politicians. Speaking in the passive voice is handy when you don’t want to place blame or responsibility on one entity or individual, especially if a negative points to you.

In fiction, however, you must credit your villain or protagonist for the deed. “’I’ll bet I knocked out two hundred combatants when I hit that camp,’ John said after he landed.”

One of the best ways to prevent your writing from falling into the passive voice is to keep your mind on your subject. Who is doing what? Active: Bessie broke the dish. Passive: The dish was broken by Bessie. If you’re following Bessie around, it’s easy to stay in the active voice because in your mind’s eye, you’re living inside her as she thinks or moves. You’ll narrate less. Instead of “it was warm outside,” you’ll naturally describe your character’s response to the warmth.

In checking your work for the passive voice, do a Find on the word by. Also check for all forms of the verb to be. If you're not sure how to fix it, ask for your critique group's advice.

Most importantly though, focus on your story. When you’re finally in your 20th rewrite, almost ready to submit your story to an agent or publication, make sure it’s perfect. For your first-to-third time around with it, don’t obsess over stylistic errors. Write a compelling story, and then listen to your critics, but be selective. How many grammarians do you think can tell a great tale?


  1. Thanks. I wondered if anyone still checked my blog. Writing and depression are not good partners, but life goes on, and so does work.