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WRITE: Frequently Made Errors #5: Reduce Your Use of Passive Voice

The question came again this weekend: “But how do I get rid of it?” As a part of our Word Weavers writing critique group, I critiqued a manuscript and encouraged its writer to reduce her use of passive voice. Overuse of passive voice, in fact, is one of the FMEs (Frequently Made Errors) I discussed in an earlier WRITE post. But as a friend pointed out, I failed to finish my blog discussion of that topic. Please forgive me! Here, at last, I present the follow-up to my original (5/18/10) explanation. REVIEW: Overuse of the passive voice can weaken your writing. However, some things are or need to be.  Good writers don’t avoid all passives. But they can curtail them if they watch for overuse of forms of the verb “to be”: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been. Those forms mark the passive voice. Print one page of your manuscript and circle or highlight all the forms of to be you find there. Or use the “Find and Replace” feature in Microsoft Word. Choose one form of to be like is or was to replace with a nonsense noun like hippopotamus. You may end up with sentences like this (replacing was with hippopotamus): The eager salesman hippopotamus standing on the porch. While he hippopotamus waiting for someone to answer the bell, he hippopotamus twirling his mustache. An old woman hippopatums shuffling to the door. She rasped out, “What do you want?” and the salesman hippopotamus shocked. He hippopotamus unable to answer. No one hippopotamus ever brave enough to ask him that question. The bolded words should help make you aware of  the passive constructions. Now rewrite your piece in a more active way. My example: The eager salesman stood on the porch twirling his mustache as he waited for someone to answer the bell. An old woman shuffled to the door and rasped out, “What do you want?” Shocked, the salesman couldn’t answer. No one had ever dared ask him that question. Did you notice that some of the other words and phrases changed when I removed the passive constructions? The corrected version also uses fewer words. Overuse of the passive voice can make your writing tedious. Good writing is easy to read. I have a few more things to say about how (and why) to change passive constructions to active. But I’ll save those for another WRITE post. After all, I don’t want to be boring or confusing bore or confuse you. Do you have a problem with passives—or a way to help eliminate them? Please...

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WRITE: Frequently Made Errors–Overuse of Passive Voice

“It’s amazing to me how such seemingly minor changes can make such a big difference.” My friend’s comment came after she made some of the manuscript changes I suggested. I smiled because I knew she understood. Minor changes often mark the difference between poor and good writing or good and great writing. My friend was teachable (as I wrote about in an earlier post). When I critiqued her work, she didn’t dissolve into tears, become defensive, or resist my instruction. Instead, she gleaned from my suggestions and applied them to her manuscript. Minor changes made a big difference. What kind of minor changes do I mean? When I review another writer’s work, I try to give some general suggestions and also mark specific concerns or problems. Inexperienced writers make similar mistakes. More experienced writers know these well, because we’ve made them, too. We have these and many more in our arsenal of errors. Over the next few “WRITE” posts, I’ll discuss a few Frequently Made Errors or FMEs. If you’re a writer, you may want to review your work to see which of these apply to your work. Minor changes can make a big difference. Today’s FME: OVERUSE OF PASSIVE VOICE When I began to write professionally, I read somewhere that passive voice marked a writer as an amateur. I stripped anything I wrote of all passive forms. However, I’ve come to understand that in writing as in life, balance counts. What’s passive voice? In a passive construction, the object of the action becomes the subject of the sentence. For example, which sounds better: “The ball was hit hard by you” (passive) or“You hit the ball hard” (active)? You saw it. The active construction reads better and sounds stronger. In general, active voice makes your writing flow and helps your readers want to keep reading. In another post, I’ll go over some ways to activate your writing and reduce the use of passive voice. Again, I don’t urge anyone to eliminate it altogether. Some events and people are or need to be. Attempts to avoid all passive constructions makes your writing sound forced and awkward. For now, check samples of your work for passive voice. Watch first for forms of the verb “to be” (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been). Passive constructions don’t always use one of these words, but many of them do. If you can’t find passive voice, you can’t fix it. Still unclear? Check this out: “Ways to achieve that fix will be discussed in the next WRITE post.” (passive)“I’ll discuss ways to achieve that fix in the next WRITE post.”...

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