September 12, 2011

write actively

Many people, myself included, struggle with writing actively. I graduated from college with a journalism degree, but that doesn't mean I don't have my weaknesses when it comes to best grammar practices.

As I mentioned in a post last week — "Pick a Little, Write a Little" — I used a Savvy Author writing resource to detect overused words or phrases in my completed novel. "Be," "is," and "was" were included among my them. While these words, most often "to be" verbs are often considered passive, it is not that simple.

If there is no solid word of phrase to look for to identify active and passive voice, how can you tell if you're blowing it?

Fortunately, Grammar Girl came to my rescue. (Note, this is an active sentence.)

In brief, active voice revolves around a subject doing an action. Passive voice puts the action ahead of the subject.

Example of active voice: "I heard it through the grapevine."
Example of passive voice: "It was heard by me through the grapevine."

Another great point she makes — passive voice is not always incorrect. When I was a police reporter, I had to rely on passive voice often, because I did not necessarily know who caused the action. For example, "A man was murdered at his home," is not incorrect, because the police might not know who killed the man.

She also says fiction writing can serve a purpose in fiction writing. The subtle differences can make all the difference in creating mystery or suspense.

Read Grammar Girl's full post and listen to her podcast here.

What does this mean for me? While I should strive to write more actively and expand my word choice in writing, using some passive language can be beneficial when done correctly. It also teaches me that just because I use a "be," "is" or "was" in my writing, it does not always mean those clauses are passive. Sometimes, those words fit best, but it won't hurt to try writing it another way. Then I can use the version that works best for the story.

How about you? Do any of you struggle with active or passive voice? What are your weaknesses?

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