Tuesday, April 19, 2011

P is for Passive

I live in a passive house. My husband and I alternate ignoring the kids in hopes that the other one will step up and do something about them. Only when it gets really bad ("Mom, Biji set Butter's hair on fire") will one of us finally intervene and take action.

Okay...not really....I am actually a very direct, action-oriented person. Letting something stew is totally not in my nature.

And yet, my first drafts are wrought with the passive voice. My editor friend highlighted every "was" in my book and the finished product looked alarmingly like a cheetah with a million yellow spots.

First let me say that not every "was" is a passive one and although some editors may hate all uses of "was," in my opinion, there are times when it's the easiest way to get the job done. Sometimes spending too much time trying to take out every "was" leads to flow problems.

Example 1:
I was late.

Example 2:
I glanced at my watch. 9:15. The meeting started at 9:00. Crap. I shouldn't have shaved. Why does my flat iron always take so long to heat up? I am going to get one of those coffee makers you can set the night before.

Yes, the second example has more gusto but really, if the sequence you're writing about has more to do with what goes on at the meeting and less to do with lateness, Example 1 can work just fine. And sometimes those shaving/flat iron/coffee maker details can get in the way of things. (I swear I am not trying to avoid descriptive language).

Nevertheless, I still struggle with real passive voice (was + transitive verbs) in everything I write. And I constantly have to go back to undo things. Here is an example of passive voice and how to fix it:  

I was parked behind an ambulance waiting for my two kids to get out of school. I was pretty sure it wasn't a good sign that the lights of the ambulance were on and the back door was open.

I squeezed my car into the spot behind the ambulance with the flashing lights and the wide open back door. Umm...not exactly what a mother wants to see when picking her kids up from school.

Bottom line: Your voice comes through when you take out the passive voice. Write your first draft with some passive voice if you must (I do) but then pull it out of the second draft. That's when things will start getting interesting...


Sarah Mäkelä said...

Good advice! I sometimes have a hard time with passive voice too. I'm glad you pointed out that not every "was" is passive too. Sometimes people get too crazy about removing those.

Stopping by from the A to Z Challenge! http://blog.sarahmakela.com

Karen M. Peterson said...

I tutor writing students and passive voice is one of the most common things I see from them. It's made me incredibly vigilant about getting it out of my own stories, though I use it almost constantly in blogging.

anthony stemke said...

Good advice.

Melissa Sarno said...

Awesome examples! I definitely do a lot of was-ing in my first drafts, then go back to see what I can do in the edit. I think it's a lot easier to do it later, instead of fretting over it while I'm in the middle of writing :-)