Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Importance of Being, or Passive Voice

Fiction novelists are story tellers. Maybe I should be even clearer than that- genre fiction novelists are story tellers. The work is about the story. It is NOT--I can't repeat this enough--NOT about grammar rules. Have I made you upset yet? Trust me when I say this, a strong story will win every time over excellent writing skills. A professor made this comment in one of my break out sessions, "we graduated this fellow who had a genius for writing, but he could not tell a story to save his soul."
What does this have to do with learning passive voice? A lot. Many writers mistake strong writing skills for strong story telling. They will tell people to be sure that they "never" use passive voice. Every sentence must be active so your story sings or...you will never be published. dum, dum, duuuum. Trust me the last thing a writer wants to hear is that they will "never" be published. And so, they diligently go through and get rid of every 'to be' verb in their 75,000 word manuscript. Why? Because everyone knows that 'to be' verbs are passive. And, passive means...you will "never" be published. Gah!
Relax, my friends. According to an excellent paper from The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, entitled Passive Voice, the above revelation is a myth.
It is myth number 2 "Any use of the verb 'to be' constitutes the passive voice." Wrong. "The passive voice entails more than using a being verb. Using 'to be" can weaken the impact of your writing, but it is occasionally necessary and does not by itself constitute the passive voice."
Myth number 4 will have rule followers shaking in their boots. It is a myth to say, "you should never use the passive voice. While the passive voice can weaken the clarity of your writing, there are times when the passive voice is okay and even preferable."
To which I say, YES! Writers waste too much time worrying about getting rid of the word "was" in their stories and not enough time looking at conflict, character growth, strength of scene and over all plot development. Why? Because it somehow "feels" easier to cling to basic "rules" like search and destroy all 'to be' verbs and repetitive words-when those things are the last things you should work on. Note: I did not say not to work on them. What I'm saying is that they are not as important as the story.
Don't let passive voice "rules" bog you down revising and polishing the first three chapters when what you really need to work on is the more ambiguous scene, sequel, story plot, character arc and sharp dialogue.
It is the story that you need to spend time polishing. It is the story that will ultimately sell a book. When you write a story, write it as if your life depends upon keeping the reader turning pages. If you can do that, then you will sell your book.


Clarissa Draper said...

Thank you! I hate when every time a person sees the word was in my manuscript they say "passive voice." Not true!

I was so worried about passive voice when writing, I lost my voice. *cough, cough*

I'm tweeting!


The Daring Novelist said...

All the fuss about passive voice really has to do with academic and business writing. That kind of writing is stronger if it's active, but it's also more tempting to use passive voice so nobody gets blamed for anything.

For fiction, though, every form of voice and every form of word or language use is a tool. A great writer doesn't just use the most common tools. He or she masters all of the tools and uses them all to good effect.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

This makes me feel so much better! There is a member of one of the writing groups I belong to who thinks a good writer should never use was. I’ll have to forward this link to him.

Pamala Knight said...

I find it both lovely AND amazing that every time I wander over here, you've got something fabulous posted. Something that always HELPS and makes me feel better, just when I've worked myself into a frenzy that needs calm words to counter it.

Thank you for that excellent post. It's like the tea and scones that I needed just now.


Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Clarissa, thanks for stopping by and tweeting!
Hi Darling Novelist, thanks for stopping by- you are so right! Business and academic writing is a completely different kettle of fish. Fiction writers must remember that.
Hi Jane, thanks, I hope they read it and all the great comments and understand a little bit more about writing fiction.
Hi Pamala, (((hugs)) so glad my posts help you feel that way. You are a fabulous story teller. Keep writing.


Judy Croome said...

Tis is exactly what I needed to hear right now. I'm getting cross-eyed from doing a line-edit & worrying about how many times I've used this word or that adjective, when really I should be worrying about whether I've told a good story or not!

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Judy,

Thanks for stopping by. I am so glad the blog was a bit helpful. I'm certain your work is very clean to begin with so don't over worry it. Cheers~