A Novel Approach — Number Two: Active Voice

Welcome to A Novel Approach, a weekly note about writing. The Military Writers Society of America asked me to write a weekly note with tips on writing, cruel payment (or punishment) for honoring me as the 2011 Author of the Year for Engaged in War. To their dismay, I agreed. Over the year we’ll look at writing ideas, large and small. Here is the second installment.
2. Write sentences in the active voice rather than in the passive voice. Write an object word, such as a noun. Write a verb. Make them agree.
What does a passive sentence look like? In general, the passive voice contains a verb linked to an auxiliary form of ‘to be,’ and generally causes confusion on who is doing what, if anyone. In a passive sentence, the subject receives the action rather than causes the action.
“To the gathering of officers the plan was outlined.”
How do you know what you are doing? It’s not easy. Start out by writing a sentence that contains a direct object and a verb. Check to see if your action word is a participle, especially a present participle that modifies a noun.

Passive: “Having been lost already, it was better to stop.”
Active: “He decided it was better to stop since he was lost.”

To be sure, being passive has its place (it just did), usually to hide the subject (I just did). But it is dangerous to write in the passive voice because the absence of a direct object makes the meaning of the sentence unclear (I just did both, in one sentence). A good time to go passive is when you want to hide someone or obscure something from the reader:

“The map being hand-drawn did not bother her, but being lost did. ‘Am I being misled intentionally, and by whom?’ she asked herself.”

We know there is a map, she followed it, she got lost, she inveighed self-doubt, and she began to worry that someone was misleading her. Every phrase in that sentence can be written in the active voice, but doing so would be journalistic reporting rather than story-telling intrigue.

So, there it is: write your novel. Don’t stand by as it is being written. And remember, mistakes will be made.
See you next week. Oh – if you have a tip, pass it along. If you want one, ask.