Thursday, July 12, 2007

Writing Styles: The Passive Voice

At Grammar Online there is a section devoted to a subject with which I struggle, the passive voice. I have trouble distinguishing clearly between active and passive voices in common article language.

Articles are more engaging when written in the active voice. I know that, but I find myself slipping into passive voice and unable to reword my articles effectively. I look for passive verb constructions but somehow even the edited words never seem to “pop” as much as I know they could. In part, my difficulty stems from the fact that I do formal minutes for several committees and they are all written exclusively in the passive voice, even the most heated exchanges. Writing that way thus seems more formal to me and better suited for more intellectual articles. I’m coming to realize how wrong that is.

It is so much easier to edit other people’s writing. The examples given, for instance, at the University of North Carolina’s Writing Center in their handout on the passive voice, were easy to spot. At least, the first few were obvious. As the explanation continued, however, I had to learn what to check. Part of the difficulty lies in dismissing dependant clauses. If the actor in the independent part of the sentence is clear to me, I consider it to be active. I did until recently, anyway.

Another part of the problem with editing your own writing is that implications are clear to you. You know what you meant and about what you were writing. Sentences don’t seem to be passive because you understand the implied actor in a given clause. There is one more reason to put your writing away for a day or two and attack it when it is no longer fresh in your mind. Portions of the writing that were crystal clear to you at the time may look much fuzzier with a little perspective between you and when you wrote it.

Once you’ve set aside your fresh interest in the matter, re-read your piece and look for sentences that leave you with questions like, “Who or what did?” Those sentences are often in the passive voice and are unclear. They will distract your reader unless you add the answer. Filling your article with people or objects who are doing things, rather than having things done to them, will engage readers much more easily.

The trick is not to worry about rules like this when you are writing the first draft. I spent a lot of time today stopping mid-sentence, trying to decide if I was using the passive voice. That’s no way to write well. For the first draft, focus on making your points. Editing for voice, grammar, and punctuation can wait until you’ve actually written something worth the effort.




My husband actually edits my posts and lets me edit his. :) He usually notices my mistakes better than I do.



Thanks for stopping by. Unfortunately for me, my husband is a worse speller and grammarian than I am. He does not enjoy reading my posts! ;)