Get Aggressive with Passive Voice

passive_voice_4For the love of God (or Buddha, or Rationalism, or whatever floats your existential boat), please let’s bash the Passive Voice Zombie on the head with a baseball bat.

I was walking down the street, minding my own business, when there was a loud bang behind me.  I was terrified, and turned around like my heart was about to explode out of my chest.  And I realised it was a car back-firing, and then I felt like an idiot, and realised I was late for work, which was bad news, because today was an important day.

What’s wrong with that paragraph?  Apart from the excruciatingly boring subject matter, the copious use of commas and the terrible writing style of course (which I freely admit is all my own).

Let me go back a step, and explain: as part of my research into my post-apoc fiction-writing, I’ve downloaded a lot of £1.99-or-less eBooks on Amazon.  I wanted to see what some of the competition is doing and, after my eyeballs had stopped bleeding, I realised there were some common problems among the glut of self-published books out there.  Not least was the frequent use of passive voice (see what I did there?).

So here’s that paragraph again with the dirty undergarments of the passive voice exposed for all the world to see (and hopefully vilify):

I was walking down the street, minding my own business, when there was a loud bang behind me.  I was terrified, and turned around like my heart was about to explode out of my chest.  And I realised it was a car back-firing, and then I felt like an idiot, and realised I was late for work, which was bad news, because today was an important day.

Passive voice drains the life out of our work like a screwdriver hammered into our fuel tank.  It takes away all the vroom in our storytelling engine, and the only get-up-and-go is our Dear Readers getting-up-and-going to another book on the virtual shelf.  And we don’t want that to happen do we?  Because we want that buck-ninety-nine dammit!

If we see passive voice in our writing, we need to ruthlessly weed it out like the yarn-destroying kudzu it is, and replace it with action:

I walked down the street, minding my own business, when I heard a loud bang behind me.  Terrified, I turned around, my heart about to explode, and  I saw a plume of exhaust from a back-fired car.  i felt like an idiot and started walking faster.  I didn’t want to be late for work, not today.

Not only does removing passive voice speed up the narrative, it forces us to put more action and context in our work (details like the plume of smoke; walking faster) and our hook (why doesn’t this person want to be late for work?  What’s so special about today?) practically writes itself.  I’ve written a purposefully awful example to hopefully illustrate that removing passive voice can unearth potential in even the most boring dung heap.

This brings us onto the second most common issue I’ve found in my reading research so far: editing.  Well, the dire lack of editing.  It’s as if some writers out there have never heard of the words “first draft”.  That first paragraph up there?  First draft.  The second paragraph?  Second draft.  We have some awesome ideas in our heads that we want to share with the world.  Why on earth would we word-vomit our first attempt into the public domain?  That’s just gross.  Far better to throw up our first draft in private, cry a little (okay, a lot) over the mess, then clean it up.  That’s called revision and editing.

If we’re going to take two quid off someone, let’s at least refrain from using a PVZ to munch on their brains.  And do our throwing up in private.

A couple of useful resources to understand passive voice (and other common writing mistakes) which I’ve found helpful:

https://www.ego4u.com/en/cram-up/grammar/passive

‘Self Editing for Fiction Writers’

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