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Passive Voice, need tips

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Androxine Vortex, Mar 25, 2013.

  1. Androxine Vortex

    Androxine Vortex Archmage

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    I'm trying to not write in passive voice. I have read many articles trying to get a better understanding but I wanted to know how I can further improve my writing. I notice I use "could be" too much. For example, The sound of clashing steel could be heard. I'm so used to writing like this so I'm not sure as to what I should change it to.

    I also use the word "gave" a lot. He gave a slight nod. She gave a frown. Should this be changed to something like, He nodded or she frowned. And then further expand on it, He nodded in agreement or she frowned in disappointment.

    What are some other key words to look out for to avoid passive writing?

    Thanks, and goodnight :)
     
  2. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

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    I use the word "gave" a fair bit, and sometimes I think it's necessary to avoid adverbs or just plain awkward wording. "She gave the King a nervous, wobbly curtsy, nearly tipping sideways." versus "She curtsied nervously and [wobbly-ly?] to the King, nearly tipping sideways." Of course there are other alternatives, too.
     
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  3. Devora

    Devora Sage

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  4. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

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    The general approach is to find a strong one-word verb for the thing, that lets it act or just appear on the scene with the right kind of panache. It isn't that "there was" a bridge, let the bridge "loom" or "sway" or whatever way to make it a living thing just for a moment.
     
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  5. Jamber

    Jamber Sage

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    I think 'had' is the classic passive word ('He had a long, lean face with a jutting jaw and ears like jug handles.') To phrase it more actively means saying that the chin or ears actually do something (as Wordwalker and others have said): ''Jug-handle ears and a long lean jaw gave him a head like an urn.'

    Personally I feel writing that has no passive phrasing at all has no places to rest, and can feel like every part of each sentence is vying for attention. Perhaps that's only a problem when people try to excise every last 'had' or 'was' and end up stretching too far for verbs.

    cheers
    Jennie
     
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  6. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

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    When talking about passive voice, you can set Word up to underline it. That might be a place to start. it'll help you recognize instances where you can then make the decision to ignore or change it.

    Also, one thing to watch for re words like "was" and "had". They can almost always be eliminated. When I edit, I remove about 80% of them with absolutely no loss of meaning in the sentences.

    One thing to remember about passive voice is that it's almost always better to be the active subject of a scene rather than the object upon which things are being done. Example: "Daniel's hand was pinned under the window as it slammed down." It's better to write it: "The window slammed down, pinning Daniel's hand between the pane and the sill."
    It's subtle, but the difference is one that is recognizable to an agent or editor. When you make the decision to use passive voice, it should be for impact.

    For me, passive voice isn't something I worry about because it's not something I do repeatedly, but the Word setting helped me be aware of where I did it and correct the ones that I didn't intend. I you know you're inclined to have a more passive style, team up with a crit partner who will look specifically for that and give you the straight truth on where it's effective and where it becomes a distraction. I know that there are a few really distracting habits I had when I began writing and they riddle my old manuscripts. With the help of persistent crit partners, I've found ways to cut down the number of errors and now my writing is cleaner as I've stricken certain things from my writing style.

    When you make adjustments, try one thing at a time until you find the right balance.
     
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  7. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    Before I get into a few things, I'd like to say don't go overboard in trying to eliminate all passivity. You could end up destroying your story worse than if you just left it in. Sometimes the story from the style it's told in requires it. I think if read Game of Thrones you'll find it in there quite a lot. So think and use your judgement regardless.

    There isn't necessarily anything wrong with the sentence, but assuming it isn't quite working with what you want to do with the story, here's a few ways it could be rewritten depending on context.

    "Clashing steel echoed from outside."

    "Fred dashed through into the courtyard. Steel clashed all around."

    "The sound of clashing steel flowed out the workshop's open doors."

    "When Fred heard the sound of clashing steel, he dashed for the throne room."

    Again, it's one of those it depends on context and what you're trying to convey.

    Each example above is fine depending on what you're trying to say about this exchange. The first example is a simple polite node that doesn't mean anything more than what it is, like two strangers passing on the street, but if you tried to write it more like the second example wouldn't be quite as neat in what it's trying to say.

    To me, it feels more heavy handed.

    If you check out this website. Pro Writing Aid - Writing Improvement & Editing Software and enter in some text for analysis and look at the list of overused words tab on the left, they give a nice list of words to be aware of. Note this only a tool and it's analysis isn't the be all and end all. Use your own judgement because this site can be lightyears off in its analysis. In fact I entered in excerpts from published works like Game of Thrones and it spat out lots of warnings, so take it for what it's worth.
     
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  8. advait98

    advait98 Sage

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    Good morning,
    IMO, passive voice is perfectly acceptable in many instances, like when dialing the tension down. Like Jamber said, too much, um, activity, will make it seem like all the sentences are vying for attention, and you don't want that. Your prose should be reasonably balanced, with healthy amounts of passivity in it too. With all good things comes a certain limit, and the active voice is no exception. GoT is a good example of that as GRRM wasn't shy in using passivity to describe his world and the actions too. Although some scenes did bore the **** out of me, I still wanted to go on. Activity does bring the reader in, but too much of it can also lure them out.
     
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  9. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

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    exactly. There's no one perfect formula. That's why I rely heavily on crits. I tend to find a Q&A session helps me more than simply eliminating adverbs, showing rather than telling, and all that other take-it-with-a-grain-of-salt advice out there.

    Hey, we're all trying to make our writing the best it can be, right? I'd do the Word thing so it points it out to you. It's really simple. Then, once you make the adjustments you feel are necessary, try testing small scenes and see what Pro writing aid thinks. Once you're pretty happy with your work, though, I'd recommend asking some people you respect and trust to give you some good honest feedback. There's nothing worse than polishing a piece over and over for every small detail, only to find out a year of editing later, that your character doesn't inspire confidence or your plot is weak. :) Best Wishes.
     
  10. Chilari

    Chilari Staff Moderator

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    I keep seeing this recommendation. Even Stephen King does it in one of the forewords to On Writing. Are you aware that there are significant criticisms of Elements of Style, though? Some advice is ignored by the authors themselves in other sections, some is contradictory, some is just wrong.

    I'm planning on looking into this in more detail in the coming months to find out exactly how accurate and useful their advice is, because I've seen stuff in there that really does not sound right, even before I was aware of the criticisms.
     
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  11. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    Androxine Vortex,

    I know where you're coming from; I prefer active writing. I like mountains to stretch to the sky and trees to march to the road. I think that "could" and "had" are pretty much horrible.

    Despite what other posters have said, I've never seen the negative comment, "Your writing is just too active." Instead, I've gotten compliments on just how active my writing is. Just because an author gets away with something doesn't mean it's worthy of emulation.

    My first suggestion is to go through a scene and copy all your verbs. Then:

    Examine their strength - Strong verbs convey motion and activity and detail; weak verbs are generic and convey existence and stasis.
    Examine their variety - If you're using the same verb over and over, break out thesaurus.com.
    Make sure you're not hiding your better verbs - He started to sprint is, imo, weak in comparison to He sprinted toward.

    Hope this helps!

    Brian
     
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  12. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

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    One exception, though: sometimes a bit of trim around the verb conveys the context better. "He started to sprint" might be the best way for someone who's got a long way across the courtyard and may not make it; "he was sprinting" might capture how he looks to someone else who spots him in the middle of the action.
     
  13. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Just keep in mind that words like "could," "had," "were," &c are not necessarily indicative of passive voice. In passive voice, the subject of the sentence is acted upon by the verb, instead of the subject doing the acting.
     
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  14. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    Echoing what Steerpike said:

    I think that we sometimes confuse "passive voice" with "passive writing."

    Passive voice is how Steerpike described it above.

    Passive writing is characterized by lack of action of sentence subjects.
     
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  15. Androxine Vortex

    Androxine Vortex Archmage

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    Thanks everyone for the outstanding help! I know I say it a lot, but I really do appreciate everyone on this forum; everyone's input is very helpful and always appreciated :)

    I am planning on posting something new in the Showcase section but I want to tidy things up a bit more and add some to it.

    Edit: I just went and re-read something I wrote last night and made some changes on my own (I know I sound like a little toddler using the "potty" for the first time yelling, "I did it all by myself!")

    Original:
    The barren and lifeless trees around her were gradually spacing further apart the further she walked.

    Revised:

    The barren and lifeless trees around her gradually spaced further apart the further she walked.


    It's shorter now and I feel it is stronger.



    EDIT#2

    I came across this and yes I know I don't have to change every single instance of passive but I'm trying to train myself to recognize it and see how I can change it, even if I don't need to.

    There was a hole in the ground dug at an angle with stone steps leading down into the Earth. She began to descend into the ground when she stopped and turned her head back toward Teran.


    I can't even really think of another way to rewrite this without it sounding, odd. Would you agree? Thanks again everyone :)
     
    Last edited: Mar 26, 2013
  16. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    To me, it's still a bit cluttered. I think thing could still be simplified. Some of the minutia can be left for the reader to fill in. Here would be my suggestion based on how I'm interpreting what I think you're trying to do. It can be tricky without context, so it may not work within your story.

    Here are the reasons I made the changes I did.

    1- You can generally assume steps are slanted/angled unless stated otherwise. Eg spirals. So the earth underneath supporting the stairs must be at an angle too.

    2- Earth and Ground basically the same meaning in this instance so you really only need it once.

    3- You don't have to say the hole was dug. The fact that there are stairs made of stone there implies there was some digging involved unless it's really important that the reader know this was a dug hole.

    4- For the second sentence you don't have to mention that the decent was into the ground. It's already stated that the stairs descend into the earth so since they're mentioned it's logical that the decent is down the stairs and into the ground and not into something else.

    5- switching turned her head back toward for glanced back is a word choice and IMHO gets the movement across in a more efficient manner.

    Hope this helps a little.
     
    Last edited: Mar 26, 2013
  17. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

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    She'd have walked past if not looking for the entrance. Nestled between two great boulders, a stairway led down into the earth. Cut of rough-hewn stones covered in decades of moss and lichen, it looked as inviting as a mausoleum. She turned back to Teran. His steady eyes gave her the nudge she needed. Stepping softly, she descended, remembering whatever lay beneath, her friend was only a step behind.


    I think sometimes wordiness is a drawback, but the thing is, details bring a reader into the story.

    What can you tell us about the entrance? Is it hidden? Does it smell like wet earth or the musty stale air of a grave? What about her turning back to look at her friend was important?

    Of course I took some liberties in filling in the details I obviously don't know about your story, but for me... If you;re mentioning the stone steps, add a description. Moss-covered, smooth, rough-hewn, ancient. This seems like a more important scene than "She slid a knife out of the drawer and held it behind her back, waiting for an opportunity to use it..."

    In that case, the situation is dire and the details of the knife or the drawer are unimportant. The focus needs to be her shaking hands, the sweat on her brow... maybe even the person threatening her. But in your passage above, your character is entering something for the first time. I want to know whether it's eerie, scary, is she being made to enter at knife-point by Teran? While some writers are of a firm mind that less is more, never spare the details when something is important. I get the feeling a stairway of stone cut into the earth and a character approaching for the first time will feel more than a glance over their shoulder. She'll be observing all the things about it which make her nervous or excited or happy.
     
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  18. Kit

    Kit Maester

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    I just went through my first four chapters and edited out a cubic s***load of was's.
     
  19. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

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    I realized I went a little further than you were probably asking for. I hope that wasn't a problem.

    The way I see it... writing guidelines are all well and good. Some ought to be followed more to the letter than others. the point I was trying to make, is that I once read a manuscript for someone where every single thing was described in boring detail. The color and cut of everyone's hair in the room, the shade of wood of the bed. The feel and temperature of the doorknob, the buzzing of the light. It just honestly went on and on.

    The thing is... WHat is important to the character? I'd certainly notice an annoyingly buzzing light.. but probably not the mahogany bed and the temperature of a door knob.. unless it's icy cold in the summer or alarmingly hot when I touched it.

    Certain details and certain writing styles need to be adapted to certain situations. If you don't cut down the unimportant details and play up the important ones, you end up with a very tepid work, a story not done justice by writing that lacks conviction. Yes show, and yes tell. But also trim erroneous things and expound on critical ones.

    Imagine these two images:

    Linnette hopped up on the window ledge, climbed out and descended the trellis until her feet hit the ground.

    OR

    Linnette crawled onto her window ledge and looked down. Twenty feet to the ground, not a fall that would kill her, but certainly best avoided. She grabbed onto the rose trellis and descended, acquiring only a few scrapes for her efforts, landing with a thud as her backside hit the ground below. She picked herself up and dusted mud off her hands. Not her finest escape, but at least she hadn't woken her father.


    The first is tepid. It describes in the bare minimum amount of words what happened. But in it, you didn't get a feel for what was really going on. I showed a girl climbing out her window and the clever way she does it, but I didn't create any tension or let the reader know how she felt at all. In the second, wordier version, I let the reader know how she felt about falling twenty feet, showed the drawbacks to her method of escape, and announced her fear... waking her father.

    While one is certainly more appropriate in one circumstance, for the sake of brevity in an unimportant situation, the other breathes life into a situation and draws the reader into what is important for the character in the given scene. I don't think anyone would call the second version "wordy" in the respect that it's over the top, but sometimes budding writers hear advice and apply it to an alarming degree, thinking writing guidelines are one-size-fits-all. I assure you, that's not the case. When we say to trim it up, we mean, don't mention the hair cut and color of everyone in the room. But please tell me that the doorknob is alarmingly hot when we touch it and the light is buzzing so loud it's driving us to distraction.

    Hope that clarifies anything I said before and might not have put into context.
     
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  20. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

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    @ Kit... "had" is my personal vice. "the merchants had raised the guild fees three times in the last year... the country people had known twenty years of civil war before peace spread to the land... etc. etc."

    It just goes on and on in my rough drafts. The first thiing I do when I trim up is eliminate 80% of them. Almost all are unnecessary.

    But that's why we become good at editing, right? To fix up the first words on paper and make them shine as stories.
     
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