“I think unsure writers also feel the passive voice somehow lends their work authority, perhaps even a quality of majesty. If you find instruction manuals and lawyers’ torts majestic, I guess it does.” —Stephen King’s On Writing Stephen King states it perfectly. How many times have you, as a reader, felt intrigued by an instruction manual or legal document? Do you begin, with enthusiasm, the terms of service before selecting “I agree”? Or do you skim over them and only refer to the visuals when assembling the item? If you said yes to the latter, keep reading. If you said yes to the former, well, I’m not sure what to do with you. You probably have a bright future in the legal field, so there’s that. For all the normal people, however, in this article, I’ll be addressing the topic of passive voice and how to avoid it in your own writing.
Last week, a fellow writer asked me an important question: “What do you suggest as a good resource when editing your novel?” Well, that’s not verbatim, but pretty much. This question made me recall how I felt when just starting to consider “becoming a writer” and beginning that first (serious) novel with the intent to self-publish. I had no confidence. It didn’t matter the good grades I’d gotten in college or how there were little-to-no red marks on my reports when I got them back. I still couldn’t quite recall all the rules I’d learned in elementary about grammar and punctuation. I knew even then that good or bad grammar would either make or break my writing career. I knew things had to be as close to perfect as possible or people would roll their eyes and drop the book I’d worked so hard on, never to be picked up again.
Ask the question in a writing group, and almost everyone will tell you not to worry about grammar or structure or even sentence flow as you write—to instead just get the story out on paper. After all, you can’t edit a blank page, but you can always go back and fix what you’ve written later. While that may be true to some extent—it is always better to have something to work with rather than stare at a blank page all day trying to figure out the best way to word that first sentence—that doesn’t mean all knowledge of grammar and the rules of the English language go out the window. In this article, I’ll be listing a few reasons why you SHOULD edit as you go, and why it’s what’s worked for me every time and has made the editing process much, much simpler.
So here we are at the beginning of our story. Our fingers are on the keys, our pen is twirling in circles over the page (or our thumbs are alternating between various letters and the delete key on our touchscreen) as we try to figure out the best way to start. It only seems natural to start as close to the beginning as possible, right? We can spend the first few pages explaining the main character’s past and bringing our readers up to speed, and then we can see where that takes us. That would be the logical way to go, wouldn’t it? Well, unless your story is a high fantasy containing a completely new world that defies the laws of nature, a rich history that directly impacts the main story, or the main character has a past that cannot be easily explained, you’re probably better off going a different route.
As a new writer, the first mistake most of us compulsively—and even subconsciously—make, is manipulate our sentences to increase word count. We go out of our way to phrase things in complex ways to fill the pages and meet that imaginary minimum word count requirement—the one we only discovered by Googling the phrase “how long should a novel be?” So we throw in a few prepositions, explain every single task our character completes, and describe every minor scene down to the last button on the grey, tufted, linen couch.