Followers

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

To Be or Not To Be...

I've been hearing lots of comments about "the passive" voice 'to be' in writing. I think I get it, but then sometimes I am about to use the verb 'is' and I think, OH NO! The passive voice!

For those of you who might not be familiar with this... most editors today do not want writers using the passive forms of the verb 'to be,' that is to say, is, are, were, etc.

So a sentence like, We are driving to my sister's would be considered passive because of the helping verb 'are' coupled with the 'ing' ending of the verb 'drive.' (that's a double whammy, BTW) (Personally, we used to call that the present participle and it was fine to use in school. As a matter of fact, we had to learn HOW to use it and were tested on it. And now, we're not allowed to use it...)

So I've been reading up on the Passive Voice and how to avoid it. One article I read was pretty helpful. It stated that most times the verb 'to be' pops up when you are using the object of the action as the subject of the sentence. For example...

Why was the road crossed by the chicken...

In this example the road is used as the subject, not as the direct object.

Why did the chicken cross the road...

Now chicken is in the proper place as the subject of the sentence, cross is the active verb and road is following the verb, as it should be, as the direct object.

This example has helped me most of the time, but not all of the time. When I see an 'is' or 'are' in my work, I stop and ask if my subject is in the proper place. If not, switching it around, is an easy fix.

But let's go back to my original example...

We are driving to my sister's.

In this sentence, We is the subject and are driving is the verb (with helping verb in present participle). How else can you say a sentence like this without the passive voice? First if you delete the helping verb 'are' you can then say...

We drove to my sister's.

or

We drive to my sister's.

It is just more direct, I guess...

When I look at my writing, it is this type of passive voice I am riddled with. I get completely stuck sometimes and can't seem to figure out how to turn it around.

What about you? How do you avoid the passive voice? Do you have any tricks of the trade? Have you been able, at this point, to avoid the passive voice in an almost unaware state? Or do you still struggle to catch yourself in the act???

Here are other writing no-nos


  1. The Passive Voice

  2. ING endings

  3. Adverbs in general. (The thought is, if your verb needs to be modified than you chose a weak verb)

  4. (which brings me to...) Weak Verbs

  5. Only Use Said (I've also heard you are only supposed to say "said." for example, Joe said. Not Joe exploded... Joe whispered... Joe exclaimed... This one I am not ready to give up. My general rule is, most of the time I say "said" but when it is called for, I used a more descriptive tag. My daughter's teacher last year gave out an award for the student who had the most synonyms for said (my daughter won BTW) and they were not allowed to use the word "said" in their creative writing at all. What is going on? Everything we are taught in school is thrown out the window when you become a writer!?)

What do you think about all these rules?


I don't think Shakespeare, Papa Hemingway, or any of the other great classic writers worried about such things. When did words and parts of speech become taboo?

26 comments:

PJ Hoover said...

Re: Passive - I catch it in my writing all the time. When I can change it using one of the two examples you gave, I do - as long as it still sounds right. If it doesn't convey the same meaning in my mind, I keep the passive.

Re: tags besides said - Too funny about your daughter's class. Maybe they do it to spark creative thinking among the kids. To make them think about how their characters are feeling. Then, later, we/they learn we don't want to tell our readers how our characters feel, we want to show it instead.

Re: Adverbs - Totally use sparingly. Sometimes I have to keep them.

Great post, Sheri!

The Anti-Wife said...

Passive voice in the past tense is far too common. For instance:

Saying, "She had gone downstairs" versus "She went downstairs"

"I had looked for the gum" versus "I looked for the gum"

Things like that will get you zinged by the passive voice police!

Sheri said...

Thanks PJ - That is an excellent point - that as kids they use it to tell, but as writers we know to show therefore a tag like "ejaculated" (good one Angie) is redundant.

BTW, I believe JKR used ejaculated as a tag in book 6. I was taken back and thought, maybe it's a British thing...

I rarely (accept now) use adverbs in my writing. But the passive voice is one I am still trying to master.

Sheri said...

Anti - the passive voice police... so funny! I have a few of those (thankfully) in my critique group. You're right, though. If you just avoid helping verbs altogether, you fix 90% of the problem.

Anne-Marie Bellshot said...

Hi Sheri,

Other writers always point out passive voice in my writing. It's not that I put the object in the subject's place. My bugaboo is "to be." I still don't agree with that particular thinking by the Passive Voice Police, as Anti-Wife so cleverly put it. (Ugh! Adverb alert!)

When "to be" is in present tense, it is subject complement. So if you're writing a story in past tense, why is it wrong to change that verb to past tense when it's expected for all the other verbs in the story?

I get that the helping verb with a participle is not as direct and concise as strict past tense, but sometimes you have to indicate a prior action. (E.g. He had lost the invitation--and directions--before he left for the party.) He left (past tense) and had lost (even further in the past).

As for adverbs, I removed all of them from one of my manuscripts before an editor critiqued it; the editor actually wrote one of them back in! (Another naughty adverb!) So they can be used sparingly. (Yet another adverb--sheer madness!)

One time another writer read her first page aloud. She had 3 adverbs in one sentence; it not only sounded awkward, but also slowed down the sentence. It made me more hesitant to use them, but again, they shouldn't be absolutely taboo.

As for "said," I read that "said" becomes background for the reader, almost imperceptible. That's important when writing a long novel, with just a peppering of synonyms placed appropriately. I better quit before the Adverb Police get me.

Anne-Marie :o)

beth said...

Heh, the grammar things get on my nerves sometimes. I hate it when people say to slash ALL adverbs! I like adverbs!! There's a time and a place, sure...using an adverb after "said" usually means it's not good, but some adverbs are just fine!

*deep breath* OK, rant over :)

Erin Melanie said...

All of these things make my brain swim around in my head. I could never be productive if I worried about it while writing, but I notice myself making these mistakes like crazy when I go to edit.

Plus, sometimes it just feels so good to break the rules. Sometimes it just works in that writer's voice, in those circumstances.

This post really does challenge my laissez-faire attitude, though, and in a good way. I can be so lazy while editing, continually telling myself I can do whatever I want.

Danette Haworth said...

Well, how can I think about rules when that adorable doggie is looking at me?!

Sheri said...

Hey Anne Marie! How've you been? You were one of my passive voice police, I believe at the June conference? Are you going to the workshop in Toms River, by any chance? I would LOVE to attend - 45 minutes one-on-one with an editor or agent to discuss career paths!! Oh and... I think I hear distant sirens... Yes, Anne-Marie! RUN!!! It IS the adverb police! Those darn satellites!

Beth - JKR uses adverbs in HP all the time. Not that she goes overboard, but she definitely has a couple through-out each book. I just think it is so silly how a part of speech can become a no-no. No to all adverbs... interesting... What's next? Articles? No more the, a, or an...

Erin, it's true, you shouldn't worry about it too much while in the throws of writing, especially a first draft. But you will find, overtime, you will think about these rules unconsciously as you are writing, and some of them will become more instinctual as you practice. After all, practice makes perfect. You will learn to have a more discerning eye.

Danette - looks are deceiving! He sure looks cute, but UGH! When he starts barking, my ears bleed! And he barks at e v e r y t h i n g!

Anne-Marie said...

Sheri,
I can't make the Toms River workshop, but I'm signed up for a critique with Erin Malta from Scholastic at the October workshop in Princeton. Wish me luck!

Do you want me to send you the final revisions of my "Trouble" ms?

Sheri said...

I'm not sure I'll have time to read it all. I am starting a new job on Tuesday. But if you want to send me the first three chapters, we can go from there. (how many pages is it in total?) That is fabulous about knowing that you will have Erin Malta from Scholastic! I am very excited for you. Are you showing her Trouble? I will keep my fngers crossed...

Gottawrite Girl said...

Wow, this is much appreciated. It's still a conscious struggle to trust simple tags, like "said". BUT. I love the revising process. Trimming away all the vaguery, and having the "what's left" be strong and clean! Steven King's "On Writing" talks alot about these points, as well...

Anne-Marie said...

Yes, that's the ms I'm submitting for Erin Molta. It's 31 pages DS. I just thought you might want to see it finished. But it sounds like you're going to be pretty busy.

Enjoy the last hurrah of summer. Just focus on the kids, job, & of course your writing. Good luck with the job!

Hope to see you again soon :o)

Sheri said...

Welcome GottaWrite! Yes, revise, revise, revise. I'm what I call a two-stepper. I revise as I go. So I read yesterday's pages and revise (taking two steps back) and then I write forward (one step forward). And I repeat the process. Sometimes I do major revisions and start all over again - and THIS is probably why I am not done yet. But when I discover a major flaw, I just can't ignore it. Or I switched from 3rd to 1st person, so I had to start from page one that time too. But now I am on a one-way course to the finish line. No more revisions, no more even reading yesterday's pages, until I am done, done, done.

Anne-Marie, Oh 31 pages isn't so bad. I was envisioning 100 or more. Definitely tell us how it goes with Erin Molta. We def want to know. I think she'll like Trouble and will be able to offer you very useful information. Scholastic is a tough nut to crack!

Rebecca said...

I don't like to say "never." Everything has its place, even the occassional was, were, and "ly" adverb. The trick is to use them sparingly.

adverbs: very annoying when overused (one flaw I noticed when I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone), it's best avoided when possible, but that doesn't mean always

dialogue tags: said is boring. People rarely just say things. True, said is fine much of the time, especially for early chapter books, picture books, etc. But sometimes we need a little more to really hear the speaker, unless of course the text around the dialogue leaves nothing to doubt. Like in a line like this: I could barely hear Sheri's muffled voice from under the comforter. "Five more minutes," she said.

keri mikulski :) said...

Great post.

When I teach the passive voice at the college, I tell the students to become aware of the verb and how the subject and verb relate. I usually 'hear' passive verb when I read my work out loud.

The toughest thing for me is description. The action and dialogue flow, but I always have to make sure I save time for description. Oh and transitions.. Yikes. :)

Sheri said...

It's interesting how we each struggle with different aspects of writing. Personally, I love writing description. I never feel my dialogue is great, but I am told it is... But my favorite part of writing is writing the endings of chapters. I love wrapping up that chapter into a satisfying nugget. And I love coming up with titles for my chapters. Maybe the next post should be about what part we each LOVE about novel writing???

Barrie said...

Hmmm....I don't tend to worry about this stuff too much until the 2nd draft. And I love ing verbs! Seriously. So, my first draft is loaded with them. I find description tough. I use a decent thesaurus or two to dig up strong verbs. Fun post!

Angela said...

I do think of the rules and my cheat is - If I can't fix it, I cut it.

So: We are driving to my sisters.

Becomes:

Bird punched the window.

or

"Don't throw up in the backseat or we'll never get across the border to the male strip club."

Just focus on something else in the car.

Sheri said...

I agree, Barrie, the first draft is just about getting it done and figuring things out. Revisions are all about these no-no's and adding layers.

I like your responses Beth and I agree, focusing on the action is much more interesting. I would never actually use my example in a novel. It's just even these simple sentences we use everyday, don't need to have a passive voice. If we focus on removing the passive voice in our everyday-ness, it will be easier to avoid it in our writing too.

David said...

This is a good example of why people should know some grammar. You are worrying about how to avoid the passive in "We are driving" when that phrase is not passive in the first place. It is active, just as active as "We drive". It is present continuous -- and active. The passive would be "We are being driven." If there are grammar police who are telling you otherwise, I hope the real police in your district are better informed about real laws, or you might go to jail for sneezing.

Sheri said...

David, You are correct, "we are driving" is a fine example of the present tense and is grammatically correct. However, this is not the point. Editors would say this phrase is written in a passive VOICE, not that it is incorrect grammatically. They believe using any form of the verb "to be" as in; is, are, were, etc. is a passive way of writing. Editors want writers to delete all helping verbs from their writing. Therefore, "we are driving" would become "we drive." It is not that is an unacceptable phrase, as much as it is a STYLE of writing.

David said...

Sheri, I find it hard to believe that a real editor would say something was in the passive voice when it is indisputably in the active voice. Some editors may go overboard about avoiding the passive, but my experience of editors is that they do actually know their grammar and don't mistake every auxiliary verb or continuous tense for a passive.

I don't doubt that children's writing editors generally favour the most direct way of saying things (and so they should), but surely they wouldn't believe that making totally false statements about grammar would help their case? If they do say these things and don't realise they are false, you should maybe look for more reputable publishers!

I might be wrong about editors, of course, but if so, what is the world coming to?

Sheri said...

What do you write David?

Sheri said...

David, you've made me really think about this statement I am hearing over and over again about passive vs. active voice. So, I did a bit more research and came upon this great site that explains it much better than I have been able... check it out… http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/grammar/g_actpass.html

It seems ‘We are driving to my sister's house’ is not the best example for me to explain the passive voice. True, children's editors wish us not to use helping verbs (which are sometimes simply unavoidable...) but the more prudent point who is doing the action? In this simple case ‘We’ is the subject and the ones doing the action, therefore, not such a bad sentence. However, if you switched and put the subject at the end of the sentence... Well, here's an easier example to look at...

The dog had bitten the boy.

In this example, there is a helping verb. The sentence is fine, but could strengthened to...

The dog bit the boy. (this is what children's editors want most)

But if you were to say...

The boy was bitten by the dog...

This would be an example of the passive voice because the subject (the dog) doing the action (was bitten) did not come first in the sentence. Instead, the boy (direct object) was placed as the subject. The boy did not do the action. The action was done to the boy. Therefore this is passive.

So, thank you for sparking my interest. By looking into this even further, I understand even more about the passive voice.

However, in my computer, Word underscores almost every helping verb in the grammar check saying it is ‘passive voice.’

David said...

"The dog bit the boy" and "The dog had bitten the boy" are certainly not interchangeable. They are different ideas that require different tenses: it is not a case of preferring one expression over the other. Maybe the editors are suggesting that one of the ideas is too advanced for very young readers?

What do I write? Research at work; a novel a long time ago; and crotchetty blog responses in my spare time. My experience of editors has been (was?) very positive.

“Personal limitation exists only in our ideas of who we are. Give up all notions of who you are and your limitations will vanish.”

- Anonymous