Monday, May 23, 2011

Guest post: Eliminating Passive Voice

Today I'm really excited to welcome Mike Chen to the blog. Mike is a fellow freelance writer, and we have a business relationship in addition to being critique partners. (Need a Wordpress site? Mike's your guy. He has several author web site clients already.) Mike and I have never actually met in person, but we talk almost every week day. Mike is also part of the Small Tales short story project editorial board.

I am pleased to welcome him as a Maternity Leave Guest Blogger (MLGB).

Eliminating Passive Voice
by Mike Chen


I've been virtual pals with Sierra for so long that I can't even remember how we met. I know we chat a lot about music and writing and business, but I can't particularly recall just how we started our insane curse-filled rants to each other (these are good things, trust me).

I do, however, remember that I critiqued one of her early manuscripts and I approached it with polite brutality. You see, I'm a stickler when it comes to passive voice and show-don't-tell. Maybe not so when it comes to blog posts, but definitely in fiction. I can't stand it when I see something like "He ran to the door" because you can create so much more emotion and imagery with "The floorboards pounded with the sounds of heavy boots as he reached out to grasp the door knob before time ran out."

Writers all have their strengths and weaknesses, but the workshop process helps us improve our strengths and nullify our weaknesses (or at least be aware of them). Based on feedback, I think Sierra and I both share a knack for real-world dialog. My weakness is the overwrought description -- kind of like the opposite of passive voice or show-don't-tell, and Sierra's critique of one of my manuscripts certainly helped me recognize my bad habits.

As for Sierra and her early manuscript? I'm sure she has bad flashbacks of my Word remarks splashing "Show, don't tell" and "Passive voice" all over her early draft. My techniques for rooting these dreaded bits of prose no-nos? Well, I suppose while FINDING them may be easy, correcting them requires a certain amount of creativity. But that's why we're writers, right?

So, my little process goes like so:

1) Open the file on your computer -- because you can't edit what you can't see, right?

2) Hit CTRL-F to bring up that nifty Find box.

3) Perform a search for every instance of Is, Are Was, Had, Has, Have, Does, Done.

4) Appropriately flag and fix.

Now, these searches naturally find passive voice rather than show-don't-tell instances, but they do seem to be linked for a lot of writers. After doing this exercise, I'll go back and read through the manuscript and try to weed out remaining show-don't-tell (which really can't be done with CTRL-F). The brevity of telling certainly can be useful at times, and I don't think anyone needs to eliminate it completely. It's just key to make sure that all of your inclusions of that -- and passive voice -- are conscious decisions.

If this isn't an exercise you've done before, it can be enlightening at first and cringe-inducing by the end BUT it will beat the notion of passive voice so deeply into your writer's brain that you'll catch yourself when using any of those words. And, if you're like Sierra and me, you'll overcome the shellshock of red Track Changes markups all over your pretty Word document and somehow build a strange virtual friendship based on good music and good writing and extreme dislike of assholes.

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