By Carolyn Howard-Johnson,
author of the multi award-winning HowToDoItFrugally Series of books for
writers including the winningest
in the series, The Frugal Editor, just released in its third
Writers are often told to avoid
passive sentences. Reasons for such admonitions are many because they tend to
tug on the forward momentum we are usually trying to create. But passive
construction can be used effectively, too. In fact we may find instances where
our writing improves when use them. We can try to utilize what they’re good at
in our writing and—at the same time—recognize their flaws so we can avoid them
when they are just plain ugly.
Luckily, good editors are here to
help. And so are many books.
Your editor may help you avoid
passive constructions by making suggestions to “activate” them. There are
times, however, when you must do your own editing. In this article we’ll cover
both how to spot passives and activate them when that is helpful as well as a
few instances where you may want to enlist their help.
Here are three simple passive
sentences. See if you can figure out how to make them active and then read some
possible edits in the next section.
1. "I was offended by the
President's proclamation." (This passive is sneaky because the word “I”
posing there at the front of the sentence seems like the subject, but it hides
the prepositional phrase alluding to “by whom.” Put “the President’s proclamation” at the beginning of the sentence, ditch the
helping verb, and you’ll see how the sentence comes alive.)
2. "Catherine was being
3. "Catherine was being
Here is your cheat sheet:
1. For the first
you would, of course, make it "The President's proclamation offended
2. For the second, you must
ascertain the intended, unnamed subject that would name who was
doing the watching, and plug it into the sentence. It might look like this:
"The fuzz watched Catherine."
(So, maybe you'd be more formal and
call them "coppers!")
3. The third
example might throw you a curve. That's because it isn't a passive sentence.
Here's the thing. We tend to assume a construction is passive when we see
helper verbs and "ing" words. But these are not always passive
indicators. That's one more thing for you to figure out in addition to deciding
whether you want to avoid a passive construction. (You’ll find a lot more on
that topic in the just-released third edition of my “The Frugal Editor.”)
You may choose (probably should) to
avoid the not-so-active sounding helper verb with a mini rewrite:
“Gracie thought Catherine was being
You might ask, “So, if these
slowpoke constructions stall the forward motion of my prose, what are the good
reasons for using them?
Etymologists tell us that language
develops in ways that facilitate our need to be more clearly understood. When
we recognize what passive construction and its copycats can do for us, we may
grow to love using passive—at least some of the time. Here are reasons you
might want to intentionally use passive construction:
1. You want to slow
down the movement in a saga sent in the 19th century. I do some of that (very
judiciously!) in my This Land Divided now being shopped by my
agent. It proves that the passive ploy worked, it won the best in
B. Lynn Goodwin’s WriterAdvice.com’s Scintillating Starts contest.
need to set one character’s dialogue apart from another to avoid so many fussy
dialogue tags. You can do that by assigning one character a tendency to use
passive voice. Just be sure you assign that speech pattern to a character it
suits—maybe someone who is slow moving, deceitful or…well, you decide.
writing political copy and you want to avoid pointing a finger at, say, the FBI
because you don’t want to get put on the dreaded US No-Fly list. So instead of
saying “The FBI is watching Carolyn.” You say, “Carolyn is being watched.” It’s
a way to avoid pointing a blaming finger at a perpetrator.
4. If you write copy
for pharmaceutical TV ads, your career could depend on knowing how to use
passive voice. I watch TV commercials carefully because I do some acting. The
passive voiceovers behind all those happy, healthy faces make me cringe. The
use of passive voice clearly avoids assigning any responsibility for all those
side effects and deaths. One actually says, “Deaths have happened.” The
pharmaceutical company causing all those deaths gets off the hook nicely.
We need to know how to make verbs
active, when to leave them alone, and, yep. when to use them to our advantage.
That way, we can take a red pen to them when they are likely to brand us as
amateurs, occasionally put them to very good use, and even learn to love them.
ABOUT THE GUEST BLOGGER
Carolyn Howard-Johnson, a multi award-winni
of both fiction and nonfiction, is celebrating the release of the third edition
of the winningest book in her HowToDoItFrugally Series of books for
writers The Frugal Editor: Do-It-Yourself Editing Secrets
Modern History Press. She is a former publicist for a New York PR firm and was
an instructor for the renowned UCLA Extension Writers' Program for nearly a
decade. She is also an editor with years of publishing and editing experience
including national magazines, newspapers, and her own poetry and fiction.
Her The Frugal Book Promoter: How to Do What Your Publisher Won't
) won USA Book News' best
professional book award and the Irwin Award. The Great First Impression
Book Proposal: Everything You Need To Know To Sell Your Book in 30 Minutes or
is a helpful little booklet available at http://bit.ly/BookProposalsII
It is in its second edition from Modern History Press. And don’t miss another
booklet from Modern History Press, Great Little Last-Minute Editing
Tips for Writers: The Ultimate Frugal Booklet for Avoiding Word Trippers and
Crafting Gatekeeper-Perfect Copy
Carolyn also appears in TV commercials for the
likes of Blue Shield, Lenscrafters, Disney Cruises (Japan) and Time-Life CDs.
Learn more about her at: www.HowToDoItFrugally.com
*I'd like to add that Carolyn is a dynamo when it comes to book marketing and just the nicest person you will ever meet - which we got to do several years ago! - Diane