Thursday, March 31, 2011

This Blog Was Written by Me and Other Crimes of Passive Voice

We still have one more day before National Poetry Month begins, so I will sneak in some prose advice by request. (Thank you, Amanda.)

Imagine you are lounging in the back yard on a glorious Spring day, a book lies on your lap and a tall glass of ice tea is within reach. You are reading a mystery, and it begins like this:

It was night, and he should have known not to venture out on a night so dark it reeked of danger. Menace hung in the air like soot, but Edgar needed to see Seville. He sped his gait and thought of her waiting for him in her candlelit grace, no doubt wearing red. Yes, she’d be clad in red with her blonde hair hanging loosely across her shoulders. Edgar’s pace quickened. He heard a click, like a lighter. A figure stepped from the shadow. A gun was being held in his hand and was being pointed at Edgar. WAIT A MINUTE! What happened here? THIS WRITER COMMITTED A HORRIBLE CRIME. She robbed the paragraph of its tension by using (horror!) PASSIVE VOICE.
Up until we see the gun, the passage has drama and tension. Yet the moment when we should see the most tension, that gun falls flat and the reader has either tossed the book in outdoor fireplace or he is asleep.

There are three problems with this sentence:
1. Overuse of the verb to be.
2. Passive construction makes the GUN the direct object of the sentence rather than Edgar.
3. An overly long sentence dissolves the tension.
Also, using the pronoun "his hand" might be confusing. Whose hand? Edgar’s, or the shadowy figure’s?

Here is a way to solve the sentence:
A figure stepped from the shadows and pointed gun at Edgar.

NOW we see Edgar is in danger and we want to know what happens next...

Tip: If you want to decrease the distance between you and your readers, keep your sentences active. Passive voice is like a passive person; you really NEVER KNOW WHAT THEY ARE THINKING.

Happy Writing.


  1. As this blog was being read by me, many realizations were materialized in my mind. And so, a thank you is being extended by me, to you for this sage advice!

  2. LOL Ms Gibson. A thanks is extended by me.