Many of us are at a disadvantage in the whole active language versus passive language debate. We’re taught to speak in a passive manner and my greatest example of this comes in sports radio.
Have you ever listened to an NFL game?
Or for my international audience, a rugby match is a decent comparison.
What do I hear when I listen to Jim Donavan and Doug Dieken all over the Cleveland Browns Radio Network?
“Nick Chubb takes the ball, finds the first down, and is brought down by Bud Dupree.”
‘Brought down by’ is passive.
Here’s an example of how to write this scene in a novel since we want to be more active than passive:
“Nick Chubb darted ahead for the first down before Bud Dupree tackled him.”
The sentence is shorter, which is seen in active language. I never stated Chubb had the ball, as in a football game, the reader knows who has the ball from the character in action. Brought down by is gone, replaced with a more active phrase.
Active language keeps the story moving at a faster pace. I’m not saying that the entire book should be active, because there may be instances where passive language is the only way to relay a point, or we might have a character who speaks in a passive manner.
But when was the last time you enjoyed a book written in passive language or since most books are written in active form these days, enjoyed a book with a slow-moving plot?
Now you can see why I barely scraped a ‘C’ in my tenth-grade English class. Our teacher had us read works where if you weren’t careful your head smacked off the desk out of boredom. Heck, the teacher admitted it herself, but since I went to a public school with a state curriculum, well, the state thought they knew what they were doing; choosing the absolute worst works in mankind’s few-thousand years’ of recorded history.
No wonder I thought writing in passive language was the way to go for years until I stumbled across the Writers’ Guild. One of the first mistakes I found in my first drafts of Northern Knights: too much passive writing. I’d guess over sixty-percent was written in passive language.
The reader will enjoy your book if you write in active language because they want to be entertained. They want to know what happens next and they don’t need a slow-moving plot with the back of their mind yelling ‘just get on with it!’
Is Passive EVER Okay?
As I implied, passive is okay at times. For one, this applies to novel-writing, so if you see journalists write in a passive manner, it’s a different niche within a field. For instance, if you look at my blog, Get Pro Football Apparel, you’ll find passive language everywhere because I’m writing like a sports journalist.
But if you read my books, the style is different, even if the voice is similar.
Most authors tell us to follow the 85%-15% rule, where 85% of our language is active, 15% is passive.
Again, sometimes passive voice is the only option. Other times, characters may have a passive voice, which adds uniqueness to character voices.
Don’t stress yourself out if you can’t find a way to turn a sentence or phrase active, just do so at any given opportunity. Most times, there are ways to get active.
Words to Avoid (If You Can Help It)
These words form a passive phrase. Not all the time, but these words are cues, so if you have a sentence that doesn’t stand out, words on this list might be the reason.
Just, very, am, is, are, was, were, be, been, has, have, had, do, does, may, might, must, can, could, shall, should, will, would, did, of, by.
Now, I’m not saying to avoid these words like the plague. Now there’s a cliche!
Also, these words don’t always create passive language. They’re necessary to link sentences together. Sentences with these words can stand out, but if your sentence seems ordinary, it’s possible one of these words is the culprit.
Try eliminating them from a sentence and find another word or phrase that might work. Read it once more with the new word or phrase and if it doesn’t sound right, reinsert the word listed above.
Dissect Your Manuscript
Now that you know how passive language sounds and which words contribute to passive language, use your ‘Find’ tab and dissect your manuscript.
Find each of the above words that lead to passive language and if the sentence sounds slow or doesn’t stand out in a good way, see if you can remedy it for something else.
Also, eliminating needless words also helps make a sentence and a manuscript more active. The fewer words, the more power to your manuscript.
From my experience, the words listed in the above section contribute to loose writing, so eliminate to tighten your sentences.
As I’ve said, always save a copy of your original manuscript and compare new with old. You’ll find that your edited, tighter, more active manuscript works better every time.
Link: Get Pro Football Apparel