Saturday, March 7, 2009

Passive Voice

I, like many people, have a problem with lapsing into Passive Voice. Passive Voice (the caps are only for the purpose of this article) is exactly what it sounds like: the use of weak, non-active verbs and verbal phrases. And the latter is very important; the "perfect" tenses of "is" are the worst and most oft-abused Passive Voice mechanisms.

In reading so much RPG material lately - and roleplaying games are known for their poor writing, so this is only one of the many problems you'll find in them - I've been awash in Passive Voice and it's so bad in the product I'm currently reading, I have had to reread entire sections numerous times because I simply can't pay attention to what I'm reading.

Like I said, this is a problem I have as well - it's a very common issue - in fact, no matter how good a writer, almost everyone slips into PV sometimes. I am aware of it and make a specific point of excising it from my work whenever I see it. The problem is - and this is why it's so prevalent - Passive Voice is hard to catch.

To illustrate my point, I started to write, "Passive Voice can be hard to spot." I really did!

For those who do not know, that is Passive Voice:

The verbal, "can be" is passive; there is no action in the verbal, "can be." By replacing it with "is" - which means the same thing - the sentence becomes active. There is no action taking place with "can be," and even though the verb, "is" is not an actual action, it's the closest we can get to an actual action in that sentence and it makes it more powerful, more immediate, and better communicates the point. There is nothing incorrect with using the verbal phrase in that sentence, nor does changing the conjugation change the meaning, but using is instead of can be makes a better sentence and better communicates the idea.

There is never a reason for using Passive Voice. You can add modifiers to slow pacing; employing PV is simply bad form.

This is from the book I was talking about (Dark Space - I.C.E., 1990):
...a growing number of people have begun to leave the large cities to live in small farming communities. Economic opportunities have declined in the cities, and smart individuals are beginning to become self-sufficient farmers and ranchers.
Again, RPGs are rife with flat-out poor writing and the selection above is exactly that (sorry, Monte Cook), so I'm going to clean this up in several ways and generally strengthen it, but I highlighted the PV. As you see, most verbals, in general, are Passive Voice, but correcting the text isn't always as simple as eliminating the weak verbs or changing them to active verbs. You need to strengthen the entirety of the text to make it more immediate, more solid, and more powerful.

This does not always mean eliminating modifiers, either. "When you catch an adverb, kill it" is general good advice, but as I, and others, have complained, this modern love of Hemingwayesque brevity is not always a good thing. If you can write interesting, though rambling, copy, then go right ahead! Strong writing does not necessarily mean direct writing.
A growing number of people are leaving the large cities for small farming communities. Economic opportunities have declined in the cities, and smart individuals are becoming self-sufficient farmers and ranchers.
Obviously, changing the tense of those verbal phrases makes an immediate difference, but simply eliminating some of them by rewording does even more. On the one hand, it is a different approach to the same ends; on the other, it is an entirely different tool in your arsenal. You can't simply change the tense to empower your verbs; if an action happened in the past, then you need to be sure to correctly conjugate in order to maintain that, but you can often reword the sentence or simply rewrite it to accomplish this without the limp phrasing.

Passive Voice is not just bad form, it is boring and it literally puts people to sleep. You cannot change the time actions occurred to eliminate Passive Voice, but you also can't allow PV to enter your work just because you are working in the perfect tense - but do avoid working in the perfect tense whenever possible. Reword, rewrite, and eliminate, but that doesn't mean cutting your copy to the bone.

Don't "really try to" avoid Passive Voice, just do it!

© C Harris Lynn, 2009

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