Identifying the Passive Voice

I’ve written before about When Passive Voice is Permissible. Strunk and White admit that “Use the active voice … does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.”

active passive voice

Illustration by kikkerdirk • Fotolia


But one of the biggest problems writers face in critique groups is the problem of partners who flag passages as “passive” when they’re really not. Often verbs of being (be, is, was) are flagged as “incorrect” or “passive.” They are not. They are not particularly strong verbs, but they are not passive in and of themselves. Continue reading

Write With Clarity

When writing for a general audience, we want to ensure that the language we use is clear—the opposite of the kind of bafflegab we looked at earlier.

Language is clear and vocabulary is appropriate to the audience.

The key to keeping your language clear is ensuring that everything can be understood in context. This often requires a careful balance between the concrete and the abstract. Information technology solutions is an abstract. Computer networking hardware is slightly more concrete. Better still is devices that connect your computer to the Internet. Continue reading

Engaging Prose is Active and Varied

To keep readers engaged with the text, use strong nouns and verbs to construct active sentences. Which isn’t to say every sentence must be in the active voice.

The passive voice is used only when appropriate.

Writers are forever being told to avoid the passive voice.

You see the problem. Continue reading

Write Brightly, but with Restraint

As writers, we want to create strong mental pictures and evoke powerful emotions. Even if your writing is prescriptive rather than narrative, you want to give readers a clear idea of your concepts.

☐ The writing is illuminating and vivid.

The foundation of vivid writing is strong nouns and verbs. People doing things. The next important element is using precise words. It’s one thing to write about a girl riding a horse. It’s another to write about a twelve-year-old waif riding an elegant palomino. Continue reading

Keep Your Writing Voice Informal

The best journalism, business, and academic writing is as eloquent and enjoyable as the best writing in other genres. Unfortunately, most people do not produce the best writing. Most people produce adequate writing. Since you aspire to be a writer, I trust that regardless of the field in which you write, you are striving to be among the best.

If most of your writing has been done in academia, business, or journalism, you may need to work on loosening up your style if you’re now writing for the general market. There, a casual tone is preferred to the formality often found in other realms. You do need to adjust the level of formality based on your personal style and your audience expectation, but generally speaking, modern readers of general-market books are not looking for a highly formal tone. Continue reading

Use an Authentic Writing Voice

Write the way you speak, only with more polish.

You may need to unlearn a lot that you learned in college about writing. Teachers teach academic writing, which tends to be dry, fact-focused, and concerned more with making a point than crafting elegant sentences.

The narrative voice draws the reader into the text.

The author’s voice and approach are fresh.

To develop an authorial voice that is engaging and fresh, imagine you are writing a letter to your reader. Continue reading

Writers are readers

Last time I talked about the importance of reading widely. Now, my list of books read for last year looks pretty puny compared to some. But it’s a diverse list, so I’m OK with that.

I once sat in a meeting with a potential client who was looking for a ghostwriter. He admitted to me, “I really don’t read much.”

Which explains why he was unable to write his book by himself. Continue reading

How to find your writing voice

Think about voice in terms of style—your voice is your unique style of writing. When we start out, we tend to write like we think writers ought to sound, instead of finding our own sound. This leads to stilted, stiff writing. Here are some tips for finding your distinctive style.

Write the way you speak—sort of. Your speaking voice is your natural voice. Don’t try to write writerly. Write as you speak, within reason. In writing, we do want to eliminate the wordiness, repetition, and flaws of our speech. Have you ever wished you could rewind what you just said and clean it up? In writing, you can, and you should. Continue reading

Avoiding cliches and purple prose

The next item on the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist packs in several problems we see in novice writers’ voices:

The author avoids flowery or “purple” prose, as well as cliches, recycled phrases, and unnecessarily repeated words.

purple prose

Photo by Bill Davenport •

Now, there are some words you need to repeat or you’ll sound nutty. I remember once a critique partner pointed out that I had used the word “door” three times within a half-page. But he had to admit, there wasn’t really a good substitute. To use thesaurus words like portal or aperture would just be silly. But don’t repeat the word if you can get away without it. For example: He opened the door. She walked through the door.

Instead you could put: He opened the door, and she walked through. Continue reading

Finer points of voice

Part of the problem in talking about voice is that voice is interwoven with a writer’s personal style. Several points on the list need to be taken loosely, since what is effective can cover a broad range.

Paragraph and sentence lengths are varied in accordance with pace.

Monotonous sentence structures are a hallmark of novice writing. When I see sentences that are all pretty much the same length and meter and structure, I can presume the writer has just not practiced the craft for very long. Hemingway is known for his terse sentences, but he could pull off a lengthy sentence when the scene called for it. Variety of sentence structure will improve your story’s flow. Whether you prefer short sentences like Hemingway’s or long Faulknerian rambles is a matter of personal style, but either way, occasionally incorporate a dash of the other to keep readers engaged. Continue reading