Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Passive Voice: Break its freaking neck!

I'm not a writing authority. Far from it.

This post and future ones like it shouldn't be taken as Scribbler Dogma. What follows are hellish potholes in my own writing that I managed to fill during edits. If it helps anyone in their own work, then, "Yay," I say. If all it serves to do is provide a Laurel and Hardy-esque view into my writing world, then may the pianos fall and the laughs commence.

Bad writing becomes famous meme. So, there's hope?

For mortal writers, especially new ones, bad writing is probably inevitable at the early stages. For example, seven aborted novels reside in my desk. They're souvenirs of a guilty conscience. My inner critic has choked the life out of them.

Why? I reread the word jumbles that tumble out of my head. Masochism at its finest.

What my inner critic sees is a comical buffet of crapola. He's merciless with his jibes and taunts. The budding novel then takes an unceremonious trip to the vault of dead prose. It still lays buried there with the hopes and dreams of similar would-be novels, fallen brothers in arms. (By the way, I murdered my inner critic. That's right.)

So, what was it that turned on my inner critic's megaphone? Passive voice.

"We have not passed that subtle line between childhood and adulthood until we move from the passive voice to the active voice-that is, until we have stopped saying 'It got lost,' and say, 'I lost it.'" - Sydney Harris

If you're a proficient writer or grammarian, good for you, you can spot the slothful word vomit that is passive voice. To you, it'll stick out like a priest in a strip club. To the rest of us, well, we have to hear it, develop an ear for it.

We can notice the sound, because it's not all that different than a slap in the face.

Here's an example of toilet-bowl writing:

"The first to light up was the limestone lamp next to the bench closest to me. The light was dim at first."

Ugh! There are three big problems with these two sentences: 1) Passive voice in the first sentence; 2) repetition of the word "light"; and 3) there are two sentences when one will do. So, here is how I changed it:

"The limestone lamp next to me pulsed a dim glow."

Is it perfect? Heck no. But it sounds much better than it did before. You'll also notice I squashed the word "light" altogether. Repetition is bad, mmmm-kay?

As I discover more writing gems, I'll share them here. If you laugh, then, "Score!" You've just been entertained.

Have you noticed bad writing in your work? Please feel free to provide tips and tricks to better writing.

1 comment:

  1. I'm a huge fan of Stephen King & he totally dogs out passive voice in his book, "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft." He speculates passive voice is a "safe" choice for "timid" writers...and lawyers who try to sound majestic. Ha!

    I found a link to an excerpt on the interwebs...check it out (not sure how to make this clicky):

    Me? I use the shit out of commas and punctuation in general. What can I say? I write like I talk...