Posts Tagged ‘passive voice’

Passive Voice

Friday, June 12th, 2009

Writers often complain that their work lacks the sparkle or sense of urgency they would like it to have. Their characters seem languorous and unassertive, they say; their non-fiction feels timid. The solution to their problems is often fairly simple—a verb shift from passive to active voice. With this relatively minor change, characters take ownership over their actions, and ideas emerge from solid sources.

The following is an unedited passage in which the passive voice dominates. Below the unedited version is my edit of the same text. My editorial comments are at the bottom of this post.

The envelope had been left on Celeste’s table, and she was mocked by its silent presence. Little things had been left out of place all over her apartment for the past few days, and Celeste had the feeling of being watched. Celeste thought the mysterious occurrences had something to do with the explosion at her office, but her theory hadn’t been confirmed by the police. In fact, Celeste was just told that the explosion had been an accident and that the mysterious occurrences in her apartment were all in her imagination. But now, Celeste noticed the envelope on the table again. She wondered if these actions had all been taken by the same mysterious person.

The final story reads something like the following:

The envelope stood on Celeste’s table, and its silent presence mocked her. For the past few days, Celeste had noticed little things out of place all over her apartment, and she thought somebody might be watching her. Celeste suspected that the mysterious occurrences were somehow related to the explosion at her office, but the police hadn’t confirmed her theory. In fact, the police called the explosion an accident and said that she had merely imagined the mysterious occurrences in her apartment. Celeste noticed the envelope on the table again. She wondered if the same unknown person had left it there.

Below is the text with my editing marks. My comments to the author are in brackets and italicized. The portions I cut appear with a strike-through, and the portions I added are underlined. (In a normal Word document with “Track Changes,” my editing marks are in red, and my comments are in their own separate section, not inserted into the text.):

The envelope had been left stood on Celeste’s table [With this revision, the envelope becomes the agent of the action, setting up your later idea that the envelope seems to mock Celeste. You could also say, “Someone had left the/an envelope on Celeste’s table,” emphasizing the unknown identity of the person who left the envelope.], and she was mocked by its silent [Do you really need “silent”? Can an envelope ever not be silent?] presence mocked her. For the past few days, Celeste had noticed Llittle things had been leftout of place all over her apartment for the past few days, and Celeste had the feeling of being watchedshe thought somebody might be watching her. [You could make “She thought…” a separate sentence to increase its impact.] Celeste thought suspected that [I changed “thought” to “suspected that” to avoid using “thought” in two consecutive sentences.] the mysterious occurrences had something to do withwere somehow related to [“had something to do with” feels needlessly wordy.] the explosion at her office, but her theory hadn’t been confirmed bythe police hadn’t confirmed her theory. In fact, Celeste was just told the police called the explosion an accident and said that she had merely imagined the mysterious occurrences [Could you replace “mysterious occurrences” with another term, so you don’t reuse it so often?] in her apartment were all in her imagination. But now,Celeste noticed the envelope on the table again. [“But now” is unnecessary. The reader will know that you have shifted back to the present moment.] She wondered if these actions had all been taken bythe same mysterious unknown person had left it there. [I replaced “mysterious” with “unknown” to avoid reusing this adjective. Making this unknown person the agent of the action adds to the menace of the final sentence.]

[Please post your comments about this Sample Edit. To submit your own work for a free edit–and inclusion in a posting on this blog–please write to me at jane@beaumonthardy.com.]