Let's establish straight away that I'm no expert on active or passive writing. Or anything grammar related, really.
But once upon a time, I wrote with a lot of passive sentences until a literary agent told me she liked my story, but that my sentence structure was way too passive. "If you can fix that, I'll take another look," she said.
"Sure!" I told her. "I'll revise and get it right back to you!"
And then I set about trying to figure out what in the heck she was talking about. Passive writing?!?!
I sat at my desk with Garner's Modern American Usage, The Elements of Style, and The Chicago Manual of Style. I read about using an "active voice." And I reread. And then I reread again. Then I studied my manuscript. Then I turned to the books again and tried reading the material out loud.
After awhile, I thought I maybe-kinda-sorta knew what the style guides were talking about and I could possibly fix it.
I can't explain why writers seem to have a natural leaning toward the passive voice, but I find it to be a common problem among new writers, and I often see it in my early manuscripts.
First, what do I mean by all this active and passive jibberish? The word "was" is a good clue that you're speaking in a passive voice, or "is" if you're writing is present tense. Like in these examples ripped straight out of an old manuscript of mine:
Paige was scanning the room for him.
Carter was there before she could do or say anything.
It was Carter's best friend Matt who asked the question.
In an active voice those would read:
Paige scanned the room for him.
Carter arrived before she could do or say anything.
Matt, Carter's best friend, asked the question.
To quote the wisdom of William Strunk Jr., author of The Elements of Style, "The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive." Which I think is displayed well in the sentences above. The ones written in an active voice are just better sentences.
But was (or "is") is not an evil word. It can also be used to describe something ongoing. Like:
When I entered, Jane was stirring the soup.
James was a handsome boy.
The room was decorated in mauve and blue.
I was scrubbing the floors when Lara walked in.
All fine uses. Because if you changed one to something like, "When I entered, Jane stirred the soup," it would take on a different meaning. It would sound like Jane saw you enter, and then she stirred the soup. Instead the author means that is the ongoing action.
So don't cut every was from your story, but do examine them.
I hope this is somewhat helpful to those of you who might be trying to fix passive sentences. Or for those who maybe didn't even know they existed until they saw this post that they should be fixed.
Learning to write in an active voice was a hard challenge to overcome, but teaching myself how to do it is literally what got me my first agent. If you have questions about specific sentences, leave them in the comments below, and I'll offer my thoughts. Again, I'm no expert, but I'll share what I know!
Don't forget, a new writing contest opened on Monday, so make sure you check that out. And Cara Putman (spelled it right again - score!) was here yesterday sharing advice on picking careers for your characters. She's also giving away a copy of her latest release, so get thyself entered.
The überwise Jill Williamson will be here tomorrow talking about the challenges of writing a full-scale war scene. Have a great Thursday everyone!