The passive voice is a favorite of academics (“A study was conducted…”), politicians (“Mistakes were made…”), business memo writers (“The shipping department will henceforth be outsourced…”) and other communicators we love to hate. Indeed, the passive voice causes a lot of heartache for readers and writers alike. Somewhere along the line, you have probably been told to avoid passive voice. That’s not bad advice, except for the fact that sometimes the passive voice is exactly what you need. I just used it, in fact, in the sentence before last.
“Avoid passive voice” is a helpful rule of thumb; but it’s only a rule of thumb. The deeper rule is this: Make active voice your default. And the rule has this corollary: Use passive voice only when you have a good reason to.
This week one of my writing students submitted a very moving story about the fallout that occurred in a family when a boy received a Christmas present that his parents couldn’t afford. The story started with a great image: “The catalogs arrived in the same truck that brought the bills–a pile of shiny magazines full of things the Kramers would never afford, topped by a pink envelope that read, ‘FINAL NOTICE.'”
Every time you write, you are doing at least two things: you are conveying information, but you are also creating an experience for the reader. To put it another way, you are conveying information, and you are inviting your reader into a scene. I am forever urging my students to focus on creating scenes and to trust that the information will take care of itself.
By “inviting a reader into a scene” I mostly mean giving the reader something to look at (or perhaps listen to or feel or smell or taste). If you give the reader the right things to look at, you can trust him to collect the information he needs.
Kayla C asked, How do I find my written voice, and how will I know I have found it? Sometimes I have a difficult time figuring out whether I am actually writing in my own voice (and what exactly that voice sounds like) or just emulating the voices of writers I admire.
“Finding your voice” feels like a monumental task, but here is a simple place to start: in your writing, weed out every sentence and phrase that you can’t imagine saying out loud with a straight face.
One of the challenges of writing fantasy is trying to create the impression of otherworldly, perhaps exalted language while still keeping your language accessible to the reader. Similarly, how do […]
Below is a PDF with detailed comments on Dylan Bailey’s story about Mr. Williams, a sword-wielding English teacher. This piece of fiction was submitted in response to a writing prompt calling for […]