Passive Writing

The passive voice confines actions lively and emphatic in life to tame expressions in writing. We should avoid the following  passive voice gremlins: “there is”, “could be”, “would be”, “there were”, “the reason he”, “it was”, “that are”, “that she/he had”, “always be”, “may (sometimes) be”, and “was that”.

Passive language is insipid, weakens writing, waters down the power of words and ideas, and shows a noncommittal attitude to writing. It is also arthritic to communication. Take note, for instance, of an example William Strunk gives in his little book: “It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had”. Strunk’s suggestion: “She soon repented her words”. (William Strunk and EB White, The Elements of Style, page 19)

Some sparing use of the passive voice is necessary in formal writing, but writers who develop the active voice draw the modern reader to what they write, through their bold, direct, and vigorous words.

Some examples from a recent edit:

Example 1

“By applying his solution to her problem a further question is raised” – My suggestion: “His solution to her problem raises a new question”. The restructure kills the hidden verb (raise), and the unnecessary verb (apply), as well as removes the passive language (from “is raised” to “raises). “New” replaces the formal and confusing “further”.

Example 2

“Can the question of sexual differences be properly posed without the occurrence of marginalization?” – My suggestion: “Can sexual difference occur without marginalization?” The sentence has two instances of passive language, and one hidden verb. I replace “can the question of” with “can”, remove the padded wrong verb “pose” (“be properly posed”), and clarify the hidden verb “occur”. (refer the article on hidden verbs:

Example 3

“Inquiry and intrigue is drawn by the application of loving to reveal the essence of a human being” – My suggestion: “Love draws inquiry, intrigue, and reveals the human”. The restructured sentence removes the formal “the essence of”, the excess “by the application of”, the clunky “being”, and replaces the passive “is drawn”.

Example 4

“To think that because something is written in the past that it has to be put in the past tense is wrong” – My suggestion:  “It is wrong to always write about past events in the past tense.” The restructured sentence removes the excess “to think that because something”, the extra three verbs “that it has to be put“, and replaces the passive “is written”.

Do not freak out if it always feels like others write your ideas better. Remember this: they probably give the idea a little more thought than you do; a little more thought is all it takes! We can say one thing in a hundred different ways, but our uniqueness, our experience, our personality, and the emotion we feel about what we write is what makes it ours. Good writers remember the rules, AND let their inner instincts guide them through a sentence or paragraph.

“Spotting the passive” is a fun exercise around the dinner table also…

Write with your heart and with an audience in mind.

Loys – 20th April 2013
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