Death to the Passive Voice

When I was a funny little school kid, my English teachers would moan:

Stop using passive voice in your writing!

I did not know what they meant and found no enlightment in their answer:

Passive voice is when a verb is used without a clear subject.

Now that I'm a big kid and I live in the modern futuristic utopia of 2018, I finally understand what passive voice is all about!

If you go to an application like "Hemingwayapp" and paste in the sentence:

Passive voice is when a verb is used without a clear subject.

...you will see the app highlight the words "is used" as a blatant example of passive voice...

We've employed a "doing-word", the verb 'used', but we haven't said who or what did the doing. There's no one to blame for this action.

With a little thought we can re-write the sentence in an active way:

"Passive voice is when writers use a verb without a clear subject."

Now we know who is doing the thing... writers did the thing!

As an editor it's hard to turn someone else's passive writing into active writing. Because when we turn passive writing into active writing we must decide "Who did this verb?" Only the original writer can be sure where to stick the blame.

Passive voice is completely reliant on weak verbs. Things are "done". But they're not done in an interesting and engaging way. Once you've made a subject responsible for the action, you can also enliven the verb:

"Passive voice is when writers dribble out their verbs with no clear subject."

"Passive voice is when tepid writers lay down their verbs with no clear subject."

Death to the Adverb

On this topic of choosing verbs we find another big suggestion from hemingway app: use fewer adverbs.

If you write:

The girl ran quickly across the lawn.

Hemingway app will ding you for "quickly" -- as it's an adverb, and Hemingway himself punched out as few of them as possible. You may have observed that he wrote the books "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and "A farewell to arms". He did not write "For Whom the Bell Merrily Tolls" and "A Cheery Farewell to Arms."

A writing coach won't just tell you to ditch the adverb: they'll get you to improve the verb.

So this is worst:

The girl ran quickly across the lawn.

This is better

The girl ran across the lawn.

But this is betterest!

The girl dashed across the lawn.

A single word, a verb, that contains within it more meaning than the verb plus adverb combo.

And again, only the writer, not the editor or the coach, can choose the correct verb.

The girl sprinted across the lawn.

The girl dashed across the lawn.

The girl flew across the lawn.

The girl tore across the lawn.

The girl fled across the lawn.

And so on. Each with different connotations.

(I'm hooked on these topics lately, as I've been writing the book Choose Your First Product (launching any day now!) and editing the book Evergreen Skills for Software Developers... I can't read anything without mentally taking out the red pen.)

 

I'm currently writing a book about how to build your first product. If you want to build your first product, please sign up to be notified when the book is available.

(By the way, I read every comment and often respond.)

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