Wednesday, 15 February 2012

How to improve your writing - part two

Today I'll be talking about a writing sin that I'm painfully aware that i'm guilty of - passive writing. It's such an ingrained habit of mine that it often slips in without me even realising that I'm doing it; I can sit down and knock out 2000 words, then look back over it and screech like the legendary banshee when I see that 90% of it is written in the passive voice.

But what is passive writing? Simple: "It was - he/she was - they were -" are all examples of the passive voice. In fiction writing, it's generally discouraged. George Orwell spoke vehemently against it in his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language", and if he's against it then I'm more than willing to fall into line behind him.

Once you know what it is, it's easy to find and correct it in your work. For example...

He was twirling his beard as he spoke like a caricature of a Disney villain.


He twirled his beard as he spoke; the perfect caricature of a Disney villain.

Do you see how much more impact the latter phrase has in comparison to the former?

Authors have a responsibility to make their prose as strong as possible. Writing in the passive voice definitively weakens the text; and as such, we all owe it to our readers to do everything we can to eliminate it from our work. The key to improving as a writer is to be able to objectively recognise your weaknesses and work on correcting them, and that's why I painstakingly go through every first draft of a story I write and remove as many instances of passive writing as I possibly can. I recommend that you do the same.


1 comment:

  1. I am also cursed with this affliction. Why is it so much easier to write in passive voice and why is it so blummin instinctive? Grrr! Truth be told, I didn't even know about it or how to recognise it before last year. I put some text into a critique software thingy and it screamed at me about the 'passivity' (is this even a word? ) content. I picked up a writing handbook and read. Boy did I learn a lot that week. Neither school nor University (I studied Psychology to be fair) taught me the things I learned from that creative writing book. Trouble is, since I've learned these things, I find it a bummer when reading now because I'm always picking at flaws. Yet, of course knowing of such things is about as much help as a plastic roasting tin sometimes, because after going through ones own work repeatedly, the glaring faults don't seem so glaring anymore. Blah!

    Great tip Kate, and something for us all to keep our eyes on. :)