Bang Head Here: passive vs active voice

Banged vs. Banging

A Facebook friend, Henry Snider, recently asked me, “Why is it that fewer writers seem to understand the difference between showing versus telling? Passive voice (running my head into a wall)!”

In my case, passive voice–vastly simplified, the use of “-ing” verbs (telling) instead of “-ed” words (showing), such as “I was running” instead of “I ran”–is simply how my brain initially creates sentences. All my first drafts are filled with passive voice, and from talking to other writers that seems to be common. Why we do that is more of a mystery, about which I could find no information in my limited research. Certainly as a species we do most of our actual interpersonal communicating by telling (after all, do we really was to show how someone ran into the wall?).

Those initial passive-voice drafts never see the light of day. In revision all those “-ing” words become “-ed” ones unless there’s a good reason to keep them passive. And occasionally there is, because passive voice is not inherently “wrong.” It becomes wrong when it interferes with the clarity of your sentence. “I was running” could be a perfectly correct statement, if your character suddenly returned to consciousness after a trauma (say, fighting zombies) and realized, “I was running away before I even knew it.” To say “I ran away before I even knew it,” misses the moment of blankness for the character in which s/he simply lost awareness of his/her activities.

But to be fair, those times are rare. In most cases the passive voice is detrimental to your clarity, certainly to your sense of pace and energy. So why, as Henry asks, is it so common?

I suspect there are two reasons, both based in the changing nature of publishing.

First, the advent of easy self-publishing means, simply, the editor is no longer a required part of the process. In fact, none of the usual gatekeepers–editors, agents, reviewers–are essential. It’s entirely possible for someone to write a book, format it and post it for sale with no outside input at all. When that happens, mistakes–often of the very basic kind–can occur. This is because those gatekeepers serve functions besides deciding who gets in and who’s kept out. Most crucially, they provide perspective, something that the writer simply can’t bring to the table. When you’ve lived with a story for the weeks/months/years it’s taken to write it, you’re too close to see it the way a reader will. An outside perspective can tell you not just when you’ve used passive voice, but which plot points are unclear, which jokes are unfunny*, and which characters seem unrealistic. This doesn’t have to be an editor; it can be a trusted friend who is smart enough to catch these things, and who is willing to be honest with you. But that perspective is crucial, and many writers don’t realize it.

Second, and this is based more on anecdotal information that first hand experience, many authors–some of the most successful authors, in fact–are no longer edited with the same rigor they once were. This can be due to the writer’s ego, but it’s also a result of changes in the publishing industry. A writer such as James Patterson will sell as many books unedited as he will edited, so why waste resources on the process, when those resources–time, expertise, effort–will not affect sales? Whereas an author with a smaller readership (i.e., someone like me) truly benefits from the attention, both critically and economically (a better book = more sales).

Now, many top-selling authors are quite capable of editing the passive voice out of their own manuscripts, and do so. And for those that do not, passive voice might be the least of their problems. But when you find a blatant grammatical error in a best seller, this thought process very well may be the reason.

But that’s just my perspective on the issue. What do the rest of you think?

*something my editor excels at, bless him.

2 Comments on “Bang Head Here: passive vs active voice”

  1. With respect, ” “I was running” instead of “I ran” is not passive voice at all! It’s active, but it’s active continuous rather than active simple. Passive voice is “The man was bitten by the dog” rather than “the dog bit the man”.

  2. Pingback: Authors initially | Gilardin

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