Friday, March 8, 2013

The Thing about Passive Voice


The war in writing could be considered a World War. A Civil World War, in fact, in which not only are there thousands of countries and people fighting their own little battles under the guise of one larger picture, but it’s really just one culture fighting itself.

One of those miniature wars battled for the benefit of “literature” is the idea of the passive sentence. A subject most commonly parroted, advice most commonly ignored, nothing is so frustrating as the obsession with the passive sentences.

The passive voice, for those of you who haven’t been burdened by this advice, is described as, “a noun or noun phrase that would be the object of the sentence appears as the subject of the sentence.” What that means is that the noun does not perform an action, it has something done to it. “I sat in a chair,” (active voice) versus, “The chair was sat in by me.” What did I do? I sat. What did the chair do? Nothing; it stood there and took it.

Now the subject of passive voice is interesting for various reasons. I find there are several occasions in which passive sentences lend to “bad” writing:

1) Passive voice is more common in writing than speaking.
2) Passive voice has less tension.
3) It tends to be over used.
4) It tends to be “pretentious.”
5) Passive voice tends to be a crutch/default.

But there are also many places for passive writing:

1) Passive voice has less tension.
2) Passive voice puts the object in the front of the sentence, thereby changing the imagery.
3) It has a voice of authority.
4) It is clear.
5) It allows for variation.
6) It allows for mystery (to keep the doer of the action hidden.) Ex. The door was opened versus John opened the door.

Now the people who say never use passive sentences, or “only use passive sentences for a good reason,” are giving sound advice, just not in an empathetic way. One issue is the idea that we assume other people are over doing it (which is understandable when you’re trying to give blanket advice to a group), but then treat it in the same manner one would treat discrimination.

A school says that women are bad at math. And they feel as a society it should not encourage that, so it puts into place all of these rules and regulations to help women be inspired to get involved. Except, later on, as the separation shrinks and even begins to topple over on the woman’s side, the school still fixates on the problem to the point that the male students are being demoralized and discouraged now instead.

Like feminism, racism, and any other equality issue, the benefit has to do with getting variation. In order to establish deviation, we must encourage the underdog, or, sometimes, discourage the top dog. Passive sentences are like the white male. They can be extremely useful, and, in fact, a specific individual/sentence can be the best for the job, and refusing to use him/it there is simply hurting the big picture. That doesn’t mean it’s okay to overuse them, to depend on them, and to ignore other equally useful options. It’s about doing what’s best for the vision, and often the greatest results are the ones without homogenization.

Why I obsess about this saying, however, has to do less with the effect on the stories and more to do with the motivation for stating the advice at all. Often it’s just repeated advice, something that sounds brilliant without a lot of thought. The term “passive voice” isn’t self-explanatory. It must be defined before we get what it is. This means that no single person who has studied writing and then come across the conclusion that “this is what is wrong with writing,” would happen to label it as a “passive sentence.” Essentially every person who ever says anything about a passive sentence has heard it before. You know, when they push this on you, they’re not talking from practical experience, they’re talking from academic theory.

Which doesn’t necessarily indicate a problem. Except there’s a set group of rules that people keep prioritizing over others which, like the passive voice, are not as important as some of the more complex ones. But these repeated phrases are easily doable and recognizable, where as the more beneficial ones require thought and decision making.

The most beneficial piece of advice to me was “Don’t let the readers know that you’re doing what you’re doing,” meaning simply, you want them to think that your antagonist is evil, not you’re trying to make your antagonist evil. But what is easier to point out? The word “was”? Or whether or not you’re being obvious about why you wrote something a certain way?

When I see “don’t use passive voice,” on a list, it reads to me like the writer is just repeating advice she’s heard and not telling me what she thinks. It indicates a lack of thought, a lack of consideration, and, quite frankly, is probably something she doesn’t listen to herself.

It is not a technique that only should be used once in a blue moon if there is only an apocalyptic worth of reason for it. It is definitely something that, once paid attention to, can help a writer improve his voice in bounds, but I perceive it as an important part of the writing world, because, let’s face it, there’s only a few ways to say one thing.

Here’s a key tip to knowing when to use a passive voice:

Passive moments like passive voice. Active moments like active voice.

Very simply, a love scene in a garden might be chalk full of “was” and inaction, but a fight in a bar might best be left to strong verbs.

Passive sentences slow down pacing and put the audience at a distance. They are best used when the author wants to do just that. When he doesn’t, however, taking them out can improve tension and hostility.

If, as I said above, the author fears his story is too condescending or pretentious, removing passive sentences can fix that. If he fears, however, his tone is too casual and laid back, adding passive sentences can make it sound more professional. It’s important to be careful with this last one, however, in that passive sentences have an equal chance of sounding more like “I’m trying to be professional,” than, “I am professional.”

The most common reason, however, in that we want to use passive sentences is simply to put the indirect object of the sentence in the front of the sentence. Why? Two reasons. For one, the first noun tends to be the focal point. When we say, “The body was carried from the room,” we picture the body. When we say, “Jeff and Jim carried the body from the room,” we picture Jeff and Jim. Most times our use of it has nothing to do with a choice of pretension or tension, but really just as the easiest way to convey the image that we want. Or, secondly, we want to have a sentence formula that varies from the one that precedes it. So as to break free from repetitive sentences, instead of, “Jeff and Jim carried the body from the room. They heaved at the weight. The men dropped it as they made it to the table,” we say, “The body was carried from the room. John and Jim heaved under the weight. It was dropped as they reached the table.”

So, it would make sense why a fix of, “Jeff and Jim” being first isn’t desirable. That all being said, there’s a relatively easy fix that does not require a passive sentence or maneuvering of the structure. Instead of saying, “The body was carried from the room,” have the body do something. “The body jiggled as Jeff and Jim carried it from the room,” makes it active and still keeps it as the first words in the sentence.

The best way to look at any overuse of passive sentences is in hindsight. Writing something, reading it, and then deciding something is wrong with it, allows for the writer to take a logical look at a gut reaction. Trying to predict a mistake is hard, time consuming, and tends to mess with a writing process. If the author has already decided that he doesn’t like a sentence, the number one reason may be because it is in a passive voice, and then he can make an appropriate change without the bias that having the evils of it hammered into your head can cause.

It’s important to take any writing advice with a grain of salt. We can definitely fixate on these little rules and waste our energy worrying about them. That isn’t to say they aren’t true and helpful, it’s just to say they aren’t as true and helpful as people like to pretend they are. If we were only to use active sentences every step of the way, the writing would be redundant and we’d be limiting ourselves from a very powerful tool. Yes, sometimes writing passively is easier than thinking of an active verb, but is also, amazingly enough, sometimes better.