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Not Another Writing Advice Post, UGH! – Passive Voice

Yes, another writing advice post. In fact, my first such post!

Seems like an oxymoron, I know. The ‘not another – Ugh’ energy has more to do with how much writing advice there is out there, and my own hesitation over adding something useless or repetitive to the noise.

My editor for the Mr. Mystic books once described my writing as ‘artisanal’ (which amused me greatly, because isn’t all writing?). But I sort of get what he was going for with that description. I don’t tend to follow expected paths or fit into known molds, and it can make my work hard to describe. Is high-concept literary queer pulp adventure xianxia even a genre?

Answer: It is, MXTX did it better than I ever could, and it looks like this:

(In other news, ask me about my obsession with Heaven Official’s Blessing).

My writing is also artisanal in that I don’t know how to package what I do into advice that other people can use. I don’t think of myself as a ‘tips, tricks, and techniques’ writer. My usual response to writing advice posts is ‘that is a fantastic tip… I have NO IDEA how to implement it, much less how to integrate it.’ The notion of having to do something like teach a class on writing fills me with dread. It’s like the centipede teaching the spider how she dances. I guess I know how to do it, but fuck all if I know how it’s done.

Because of this, I’ve never tried to join the stream of (frankly much better) writing advice posts that are out there. It seemed disingenuous to post tricks and tips that I don’t necessarily use myself. But a recent question from a new writing acquaintance shed a different light on this. Even if I don’t struggle with a particular issue (or even if my struggle looks more like a fox putting on their scorpion mecha-armor and powering through, stabbing everything – including themselves – with their poison stinger along the way), I still have some skill at coming up with ways that other writers might identify and tackle challenges they’re facing in their own writing.

One of my dance teachers used to say that improving dance technique was all about finding the right kinesic analogy. Thanks to her, there will always be a little family of imaginary mice huddled under the arch of my foot, helping me remember to pull up and turn out.

So this (maybe) series is my little family of imaginary mice for whomever out there might need them. And I will start with the trick that spurred the idea, with thanks to my new writing pal Jeff, who has been struggling with passive voice.

Passive Voice

We’re told it’s terrible to use — hah, see what I did there? Yeah, okay. Using passive voice to discuss passive voice is barrel-scraping humor. I will try to stop.

Who says it’s terrible to use, and why is it so terrible? I first grokked this in a history class, where the professor (rightly) pointed out that writers who use passive voice to describe historical events usually have a stake in erasing the perpetrators of atrocities in those events, or in making those events seem eternal and inevitable instead of the direct result of people making choices. Z was done to Y has a different impact than X did Z to Y. Almost every action has an actor (I use almost as a caveat. I can’t think of any actions that don’t have an actor, but they probably exist). Passive voice lets you leave out the actor, almost always to remove culpability for the action.

In fiction writing, passive voice does have a use and a place. It’s a great tool (especially in conjunction with omniscient PoV) for evoking a mythic, legendary feel – like Morgan Freeman is narrating the events of your world. But the closer your PoV, the less passive voice tends to work. It ends up distancing the reader from the character, their actions, and the actions enacted upon them, in ways that you probably don’t want (unless you do, but that should be a deliberate choice).

While SFF has a long history of great works that make liberal use of omniscient PoV (and the associated tendency toward passive voice), the current taste is close third PoV (with some sub-genres like Urban Fantasy making a hard turn into first person). If passive voice distances readers from the characters in close third PoV, then in first person it can feel downright unnatural.

Tips and Tricks!

This is where I tend to get hung up. A lot of writing tip blogs give great, granular advice for avoiding passive voice – don’t use ‘to be’ constructions, especially ‘it was’ and ‘there were’, choose more active verbs, etc. But that advice doesn’t give you a path for how to naturalize and integrate this into your writing flow. She can try to teach you the steps, but how does the centipede dance?

If you want to get away from passive voice (or if you need help recognizing when you’re doing it), an exercise you might find useful is to write a scene in first person, then swap it to close third person (or take a scene that’s in close third and transpose it into first person). It’s more challenging to use passive voice in first person because you are behind the wheel of the “I” that is acting (rather than the over-the-shoulder view of close third, or the birds-eye view of omniscient, to use a video game analogy). You can still do it – ‘I was struck by the disintegration beam’ vs. ‘The disintegration beam struck me’ – but shifting the PoV can help you identify when you are doing it and give you the space to make that a deliberate stylistic choice.

Note that this technique is also a helpful way to work out kinks in voice and PoV switching. First person encourages you to only think in that character’s voice, to only notice what the character would notice, and to only describe it using terms the character would use to describe things.

Outside Resources

Like I said, there is always more (and better) writing advice out there. If you want more info on passive voice in all types of writing, check out this UNC Chapel Hill Writing Center Passive Voice Handout.

And for those of you wondering what the hell I’m talking about with the centipede, I give you The Wee Kirkcudbright Centipede.

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