Overcoming the use of passive voice

Unlike a lot of the writers out there, I don’t have much formal education in the ways of writing. I’ve done ok for myself despite this, but there are certain times when I feel like I’m lacking in some way because of it.

My usage of passive voice is one of the areas I feel I need to address. I know that many publications advise against using passive voice whenever possible, but I’ve never paid particular attention to it in my writing, and apparently none of my editors have either.

I’d like to change that, however. I’ve done reading on what exactly passive voice is, and while I get it (focusing on the subject that’s performing the action as opposed to focusing on the subject having the action performed on it) I’m having trouble applying that to my games writing.

I guess my question is, are there any other writers on QT3 that have struggled with this at all? Were there any exercises or things you read to help you overcome the problem?

I probably look like a huge newb to some of you, and I’m sorry! I realize I’m not the best writer in the world, but I struggle with issues like these in my attempts to improve my work.

Any suggestions? :)

Release the hounds!

(I will follow this thread closely, hope you get some good advice.)

Was making this thread a bad idea? Now I’m scared. :(

On a board full of grammar Nazis (that does not qualify as a Godwin!)? A bad idea it may not have been, but blood in the water is attractive to sharks.

You were too polite in the OP, and made the classic mistake of saying “I’m sorry”, then compounded the mistake by using the exclamation point in a non-sarcastic way. In short, you showed weakness. You might be forgiven by the Lords of QT3 because they didn’t get here first to point these things out in their own way, and to comment now would be beneath them.

Omniscia and I have tried to help, in our own, poorly written way…

Ruthless editing from my grad school mentor cured me.


Ruthless editing by my college newspaper publisher cured me.

Imagine sinking all you energy into turning out a paper on a daily basis, then walking into the newsroom in the morning to find the marked copy the publisher left on your desk, oh so pointing out your every error (both factual and grammatical) in nice red ink. And if we were really, really bad, he stapled a typewritten page (or pages) listing everything we fucked up. You saw those stapled notes across the room, and the feeling of dread dropped in your gut.

Crazy enough, we won SPJ national college paper of the year that year :)

Wow, that’s brutal. My college newspaper editor was very gentle and forgiving. We didn’t really have a publisher…

That said, any major errors were usually saved for the Friday evening post-mortem, where everyone would find out just what you did to screw up. Like the time the editor took an advertisement for PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and mistakenly dropped the L from the ad copy…

I recently went through a lot of traumatic revisions to my writing process after years of complacency and decline. As you can see, things have not improved greatly. Nevertheless, here’s some of what I suggest.

The problem that you can run into early on is that the passive voice can legitimately be used when the recipient of an action is more important than the actor or when the actor (s) is difficult to identify. It’s in that second category that many writers run into trouble, as they try to mask uncomfortable topics by inserting vague pronouns and the like in order to get rid of the passive voice. You’ll also see business, academic and political speech that embraces that usage in order to avoid assigning responsibility to individuals or specific groups, which then infests every other layer of society as a consequence.

As an exercise, I think it’s fun to do two things that repair writing at the same time. Take something you’ve written and treat every sentence as if it were describing a crime for which you need to accuse a perpetrator clearly and in active terms if you are going to be able to prosecute him. Then remove all of the superlatives and adjectives (very, pretty, good, bad) that litter sentences without adding meaningful description. That doesn’t mean every modifier, but try eliminating them and seeing if what remains gets the point across. In order for this to work, it’s important get used to saying what you read in your head when you are analyzing it. It helps you get a feel for what the English language sounds like without bullshit.

Keep in mind that many things that are unacceptable or useless in non-fiction can be appropriate when used in literary writing. Just make sure the application of the passive voice and other such devices is done purposefully rather than because it seems the path of least resistance. Also, George Orwell recounts the perversions and swindles of the English language and sets a standard. I can’t meet it consistently, but it’s a hell of a read.

Well, I don’t know what passive voice is, but I tried to pare down your post.

Unlike many writers, I don’t have much formal training in writing . I’ve done OK despite this, but sometimes I feel inadequate.

I need to stop using the passive voice. I know that many publications advise against passive voice, but I’ve never paid attention to it, and neither have my editors.

I understand passive voice - focusing on the subject of the action rather than the instigator of the action– but I can’t strike it out of my games writing.

Are there other writers on QT3 that have struggled with passive voice? What helped you overcome it? Exercises, books, etc.

I’m a huge newb. I realize I’m not the best writer in the world, but I’m trying to improve.

Any suggestions? :)

Eric, I’d recommend that you pick up a copy of The Elements of Style, a classic writer’s guide by Strunk & White. There’s a section in there on passive voice, as well as material on writing in the positive rather than the negative - i.e., “He was always late” vs. “He was never on time.”

I practically had to memorize this book to get my journalism degree back in the day. It’s a great little book.

Hell yeah. One of the Best. Books. Ever.

Classic example of bad Passive Voice:

The bill was passed.

There are two things wrong with it. First, it with held information. It doesn’t tell you who passed the bill. Second, its “passive,” meaning stylistically kind of boring. Lets see what the improved version is.

Congress passed the bill.

Ah, we now know who passed the bill and avoided “weasel words.” Admittedly, the sentence is still kind of boring, but trust me when I say adding more direct action verbs will make the writing more interesting.

So, don’t think you need to get rid of passive voice because some stylist recommended it. In ancient Rome run on sentences that grew to the length of paragraphs was considered the height of style (curse you Cicero for causing my high school Latin class so much pain). Instead, think about the reasoning behind it.

Which leads me to recommend what is always good advice for improving your writing: proofread, 3rd party proofreader, read outloud, and repeat as necessary. While proofreading, its best to have in your mind common mistakes to be on the look out for. If you want to stop using passive voice, do a proofread specifically eyeing sentences that might be passive voice. If its of the form I suggest above, the fix should be a no brainer. Add the proper subject (that is the person or thing doing the action) and change the verb format. However, there are some passive voice sentences that don’t have an easy fix. Don’t worry about those, unless they fail the “make sense” and “sounds right when spoken outloud” tests. In that case, you may have to axe that portion of the paper/article/etc. and try again.

Thats my two cents.

Doing my own proofreading for passive voice is the thing I’m the most afraid of at this point. I’m not used to having to look for it, which makes me think I’ll miss a lot of it when proofreading my writing. Missing it means I’ll think I’ve done ok, when in fact I haven’t, leading me to not only screw up but also fail to improve. Does that make any sense? :)

Do I just have to grind this out, or is there an easier way to get my brain used to being on guard for passive voice?

I think the books and manuals are generally correct that too much passive voice is bad, but don’t go overboard.

If you only use the active voice in those short powerful sentences you see in all the examples of good vs. bad, I think you are going too far. Unless you are extremely skillful, I think that tends to make your prose sound like it was written for a comic book. That’s better than sounding like it was written for a subcommittee, of course, but even so…

So yeah, look through your prose for vague, weak, and passive usage, but keep in mind that some of the best prose in English is long and even meandering, so don’t cut everything down to those short choppy sentences. Sometimes you may want to convey some amount of vagueness, weakness or passivity, after all.

Edit: As regards actually finding the passive voice, that’s easy. Look for sentences where the object comes before the verb.

Not really a fiction writer here, but law school was pretty stringent on this. Though it may vary with what you are writing (fiction, diary, technical instructions, forum flame war, etc.), I think it is most important to first get everything out that you need expressed without paying attention to active or passive voice - just getting the words down.

Then you open up a vein and brutal hack at each individual sentence. Rewrite the ones that are too passive, replace repetitive adjectives, check for faulty parallelism and all the other things. Finally, make sure that once you have a better individual sentence that it fits in context.

That helped me. Granted, these were short bits of writing so even a complete rewrite wasn’t beyond the pale. But a 5-6 rounds of that and you’ll start catching the problems as you write or formulate the sentences and examining each sentence starts to become masochistic (though still well worth it if you’re submitting legal briefs to the First Circuit).

I keep a copy of the Elements of Style in my laptop bag and I’ve given out a half dozen copies to those looking to improve their writing. Though my professional writing is limited to systems architecture reviews, root cause reports, and other technical papers its just as handy (maybe even more so since the expectation for readability is so much lower that it doesnt take much to impress).

But I always appreciate concise writing advice like Miramon point about looking for sentances where the object comes before the verb. Generally I tend to put the most interesting part of the sentence at the end, so that the sentence builds to a successful resolution.

When I was younger, I had a big problem with the passive voice. I’d retreat to something like “mistakes were made” very often. The only way I was able to overcome the problem was to accept a paraphrased quote that I stole from Maus: “Everything written is a sin against oblivion.” Beckett was the quoted.

What I’m trying to say is: every word you write must be important, regardless of medium. Everything extraneous must be cut.

Pretend you are writing a PowerPoint presentation and then add from there. You also may want to work on your vocabulary. Strong words vs weak words can make a lot of difference in your writing. I don’t know what the unwritten rules are for writing reviews, but I know when I was doing marketing, conciseness was key. No one was going to listen to you for more than 3 minutes or read more than one page so you had to make those words count.

My first professional writing job was Tech Ed for PC Gamer. Dan Bennett, an incredible writer and editor, blasted that nasty passive voice right out of me.

I suggest you try to get lots of feedback from professionals or very well written individuals, if you can; if not, read a lot of well-written works and try to imitate them. Don’t worry about aping other writers–with time, you’ll come to develop your own voice.