So I’m sitting there looking at my folder of short story WIPs and a voice kept calling out to me saying:
You need to publish another book.
And it’s true. I do. The only problem is that to publish one means I need to finish one. I have a folder of novel WIPs and ideas or basic outlines, but none of these are anywhere near completion, and some don’t even have a single word written.
But…I do have a novel done. It’s a YA Fantasy novel that has a decent plot, and if I showed you it’s outline, you’d probably think it sounds pretty good. So what gives? Why not work on that one?
Simple. The writing is just not that good. (That doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed, obviously, but that’s a post for another day.) The thing about this novel is that I wrote the first draft in–believe it or not–2011. That might not be a long time ago in the cosmic sense, but since I’ve only been writing fiction since 2010, you can imagine the amount of knowledge I have now that I didn’t have then.
But this post isn’t isn’t really about that novel; it’s about one of the common mistakes I keep finding in it.
That mistake is passive language. And passive language is yucky.
So what is “active voice”?
Well, from Wikipedia:
Active voice is a grammatical voice common in many of the world’s languages. It is the unmarked voice for clauses featuring a transitive verb in nominative–accusative languages, including English and most other Indo-European languages.
Uh, what? Maybe if we keep reading…
Active voice is used in a clause whose subject expresses the main verb’s agent. That is, the subject does the verb’s designated action. A clause whose agent is marked as grammatical subject is called an active clause. In contrast, a clause in which the subject has the role of patient or theme is named a passive clause, and its verb is expressed in passive voice. Many languages have both an active and a passive voice; this allows for greater flexibility in sentence construction, as either the semantic agent or patient may take the subject syntactic role.
Okay, well, that makes a little more sense. Basically, with an active voice, the subject of the sentence is the one doing the action.
“Henry ate a cookie.” is a sentence in the active voice.
“The cookie was eaten by Henry.” is not.
Henry is the subject and he is doing the action.
So why does this even matter?
I think a big reason is that it can make your writing seem amateur. It’s a type of mistake that can weaken your prose, taking the focus off the important player (the subject) and shifting it to the less important one (the verb’s agent.)
That, and it also sounds like you’re writing backwards.
But, as we all know, writing “rules” are meant to be broken. There are certainly times when active voice is okay.
Say in that above example about Henry and his cookie, maybe the story is actually about the cookie.
“The cookie was eaten by Henry.” is okay to use in that case since the reader is supposed to be focused on the cookie, and not worrying about Henry, until, of course, he stumbles into the room and eats the cookie.
So that’s it. In a nutshell, just make sure that most of your sentences use a noun-verb structure and you’ll be fine.
Now I just need to go open up that old manuscript I have and do the same.
Thanks for reading, and if you’ve got any good examples of bad passive voice, be sure to leave them in the comment section!