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Monday, 5 September 2011

The moon was jumped over by the cow…

…or why passive voice is easy to write but not to read.

I was editing a few beginners’ short-story efforts recently, and kept coming up against the passive-voice monster. This got me wondering why people write like this, and we all did it. In fact I think most of up probably still do. We just get better at recognising and removing it.

The first thing everyone is told when learning to write is usually ether “Show, don’t tell” or “Don’t use passive voice.” Both are very good pieces of advice and both invariably leave the would-be writer reeling under the weight of these short sentences.

Subject and action, that’s how most of us think. ‘The dirty dishes were not washed by our son again’ a common enough occurrence, at least in our house.
We may think that way. But we don’t talk that way. I think that’s where the problem is. We are more likely to say “You’re son didn’t wash the dishes again.” … and yes, the answer would probably be “He’s your son too.”

Why do we think like that? Well I’m not a psychologist, but I would hazard a guess that it’s mostly down to perception. We perceive an action, and think about the couse and or consequences. But our modern speech-patterns mean we don’t verbally say it like than, and when we do communicate it like that in writing the results come across as week and our brain tends to gloss over them., quite possibly because it registers more like an idle-thought rather than a strong, imperative, statement.

Anyway, my point is it’s easy to write in passive voice when you are ‘in the flow’ as you’re much more likely to stream what is in your brain directly onto the paper (or computer screen) unfiltered by any techniques you may know. Of course that’s where the editing comes in, and it takes time to both learn the techniques and to use them to their best advantage. It also seems to be linked to peoples understanding and use of verbs. New writers seem to over-explain and often use language that reads too formal.
E.g. “This blog post explains my theory” not “This blog post is an explanation of my theory in which I attempt to show readers why some people write lots of passive voice.”
OK, that may be a bit of an over-the-top example, but I have read many first-drafts that ‘speak’ like this, which usually lead to comments telling the would-be writer to ‘find their voice.’

So is this type of advice wrong? Is it a lazy answer on the part of the person giving the critique or review? I don’t necessarily think so. No matter whom the giver is any comments are always subjective, and largely depend on the level of knowledge held by the person commenting. So do we all just stay quiet, and keep our opinions to ourselves? Of course not, people learn by doing, listening to feedback and doing again, and again, and again… the people who don’t generally ever get any better are the ones that don't take the advice and stagnate. While the people who do, sometimes, end up getting cold-hard cash for their efforts.

So what do you think, and how do you explain this to newer writers?

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