practical advice about active or passive writing voice

I know these posts seem egotistical in nature, as if through them I can crow about myself by alluding to “real writers,” I have known, but to me these posts are lessons in writing that any writer who aspires to write better might learn from. One of the hardest things for me has been learning how to write in the active voice, even having trouble what the difference was. Somehow I recognized good writing, but couldn’t begin to tell you how. I still have difficulty with that one. Maybe it’s the same with you.

I sidestep here a bit to that old picture storybook for children that belonged to my daughters when they were growing up. In it, Papa Pig was sent to the market by Mrs. Pig (who was awfully busy spring cleaning) ostensibly to select vegetables for the stew she would make for dinner, but of course we know it was a ploy to get him out of the house. As he picked and sorted among all the veggies, he wasn’t able to say why he wanted this or that thing and not another, even what would make a good stew. What he said instead in every case was, I may not know much about Rutabagas (or whatever), but I KNOW what I like. Put all of them together into a stew, and it would have to be good. But if we consciously want to write better, we need to know some things that go into good writing. I’m always open to learning.

* * * * *

September 4, 1999: It appears you sent this message to me by mistake. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading the nice things you said about my writing. Later, -Jim

[This came from a query I’d written Professor Bob, with a cc to Mr. P, asking if it was possible to write in a 100% active voice. I still hadn’t learned what the differences were between “active” and “passive” voice in writing. I’d been using Word’s grammar checker and every piece I wrote seemed to be at least 30% passive according to the checker. I wanted to as near to 0% if possible.]

September 4, 1999: Really it wasn’t a mistake. I got a nice lecture back from Dr. Bob (he really hasn’t retired I think!) which pointed out some obvious things–like I shouldn’t trust the grammar editor on a Word software. Actually I was hoping you’d send me your thoughts on the subject too. I suspect [know] that you are a born storyteller and your writing just flows on its own. Maybe good writers ARE born, not taught. Even if it’s not so, I’ve noticed good writers make it seem so. Some of mine does [flow], but no publisher ever seemed to like it so I just gave up pretty much. But something in me won’t let me give up doing things for my own satisfaction. Do you have anything to add, and more important, do you have the time to indulge me? Alice

September 5, 1999:I’m sure Bro Bob gave you good advice about Word’s grammar checker. I would add only this caveat: Never use Word’s (or anyone else’s) grammar checker unless you have absolutely no need to. About 3/4 of the suggestions are wrong. If you don’t know which to ignore, you’re much better off on your own.

As to voice, the fact that you are unable to write your piece entirely in the active voice should tell you something. If just ain’t English as she is meant to be writ. Try this: Find a piece published in a respectable rag similar to the piece you are working on that strikes you as well written and parse it for voice. That’ll give you and idea. Take the average of a dozen of ’em, and that will give you a better idea. But there’s no rule you can follow.

I have a theory that Southerners tend to use more passive constructions because they are somehow more polite. Sorry I’ve been absolutely no help.

I have posted the new material to my web site. It’s called The Gabriel Chronicle and is an alternate version of Genesis as seen by a New Zion Bible scholar. You can find me at either of these locations:

[Sadly, Geocities at Yahoo is no longer available, which is really too bad because there was a wealth of good writing to be found there!]

September 7, 1999: Thanks so much for the advice on the active voice, etc. The advice from both you and Dr. Bob was helpful. The point you made about Southern heritage making it harder for a person to use a real active voice was right on! Iused to have trouble saying anything out loud in a very authoritative voice–I always hedge by prefacing my remarks with stuff like “It’s my understanding…” or “from what I’ve seen documented…” etc. I’m getting better now. There’s a lot to be said for getting older in that respect! Being a female brought up in the south packed a double whammy as far as getting listened to. And in my family, being the “baby”, nobody gave any credence to anything I had to say. Probably that’s why I always “wrote” (most in my head growing up) because then I could be more forceful, more sure, and nobody could say I didn’t know what I was talking about. In my stories I was God and I could do or say whatever I wanted. Are writers always trying to justify their existence, you think?

I sandwiched time Sunday night to read the Chronicles in one sitting. How appropriate for the Sabbath, don’t you think? As expected, I loved it. As for clever writing, I think my favorite was Chapter 3; the artful way the serpent seduced Eve was a classic. You said it all without really saying it.

[A telling discovery! That’s exactly what I’d been striving to do–not having to explain what I’ve written to my reader.  I’d realized by this time if you have to explain yourself or your story, you’re not crediting him/her with much intelligence, and need to work on showing without telling. Communicating well with words is no accident. I would begin to work on choosing them well.]

9 thoughts on “practical advice about active or passive writing voice

  1. I was taught not to use passive voice which was never a problem for me anyway. Friends who have read my work say that reading my writing is like listening to me talk. My son, who was/is a wonderfully articulate speaker, had a hard time writing — it was ragged and stilted and stodgy. I told him to read his work aloud and re-phrase it in a conersational manner. He didn’t listen them but I hope he heeded me later. I think he did because he keeps getting published in professional journals.

    As to grammar and spelling checkers, I’ve never trusted them. Yes I use spelling checkers, but I read my work to check anyway to try avoid an errant homophone or wicked typo. I’m an excellent speller but a lousy typist. (grin)

    The way they teach writing in school now bothers me. Then again, the way they teach everything in school these days bothers me so I’ll just shut my mouth.

    This is a really interesting post. I like to see how others approach their writing. I’m of the ilk of the late writer, Red Smith who said, “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.”

    Thanks for sharing your expertise.

    • Not expertise enough, Kay. But I sure appreciate your thinking well of me even if I don’t entirely deserve it. When I write best–when it doesn’t feel like work at all–I feel like a stenographer just reproducing the sounds I’m hearing inside my head and it all comes out in a gush. Then I turn around and edit it and if I’m lucky it’s better than what I began with. I do understand that comment about opening a vein and bleeding. There have been times when I’ve felt that too. Usually that’s when it’s better than ordinarily, and maybe explains too why it usually isn’t. I hope you’ll continue sharing on future Zion posts.

  2. Excellent, as usual. Do you realize you began with an apology? “I know these posts seem egotistical in nature…” These are great lessons, well written, interesting. Don’t apologize.

    • Well said, Ruth. That completely escaped me. See how easily ingrained these things can be; and I will always struggle against it and probably never will overcome it fully. I will say–as far as the Word grammar checker goes–eventually I wrote something (can’t remember what it was, perhaps something in my family memory cookbook) where the checker gave me 100% active voice response! So it can be done.

  3. Yes, I agree with Ruthe…do drop that first sentence. You have no need to apologize for anything at all. Question? Does his writing about grammar still exist somewhere online?

    Yes, three, tho I cherish my spell check, personal idiosyncrasies allow me to add to that spell check all I want. I always have variations that I prefer to use somewhere in a back pocket. Since I am brain damaged, grammar and I, which used to get along splendidly, now dance gracelessly together. Darn it. Lovely….not demagogically at all, thank you.

    • okay, I’ll try. But you’ll probably have to keep calling me on it. It’s ingrained!

      I don’t think any of his writing exists online anywhere anymore. What I post here is all you’ll get. I can’t wait until he gets into his childhood stories!

  4. Alice – this has been a tough week so I have yet to respond to an email you sent my way several days ago. I will soon, however, right now I wanted to comment about passive voice. I’ve been reading some 19th century classics for the purpose of enjoying them AND creating lesson plans to help students enjoy them as well. One characteristic of these classics is the prevalent use of passive voice AND inverted sentence structure: “The gold dublins were snatched up by Silver!” said he. (The example is my creation, not Robert Louis’.)

    Interesting, don’t you think?

  5. I agree with Kay. My idea of an active voice in writing is just to write like you’re having a conversation with the reader.

    This directly contrast with my technical profession in which I have to write in a 100% passive voice. In fact, in the first draft of the very first paper which I wrote back when I was at grad school, my prof told me the exact opposite of your writing advice (i.e. be passive passive passive).

    I said to him that would just make my paper boring and dry. His reply was that our goal is not to entertain, but to inform and report our findings in an unbiased manner.

    I think he’s right in that regard. An active voice can convey or instill emotion. You can put a spin to practically any statement with an active voice. Not good for my work. Good for creative writing.

    To this day I am still amazed at how lifeless I can write. If anyone is interested in examples of what-not-to-do examples, just give me a shout.

    • Paul, certainly I can sympathize with your problem. Both my daughters have to write and submit to journals with the expectation of publication and to some extent their careers require it. There are strict protocols to follow and it does inhibit creativeness in a way. But in their case, and yours I imagine, it’s the creative thought that goes into the research that counts. I was in the last university class of a professor of English in Ohio. He most looked forward, he said, to reading what he wanted instead of what he oughta as he’d been doing the past 30 or 40 years. It would be hard to switching between the two writing styles. Maybe you should begin a blog of your own for creative release. I’d read it! Thanks for stopping by.

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