If you're like me, you've probably read your share of writing articles associating passive voice with weak writing. And it's true. The more you use active verbs, the better your writing will be most of the time. But if that's the case, why do writers continue to overwhelm their writing with passive sentences? Having edited my share of manuscripts with passive voice, I'm convinced that a lot of people don't understand the difference between passive and active voice enough to recognize it. So let's start there.
What Is Active Voice?
I'll begin with active voice since it is easier to explain and more direct. If a sentence is active, the subject performs the action, and the object, if there is one, is either acted upon or the product of the action. The following are a few simple examples:
Polly cleaned the attic.
Michael borrowed the book.
As you can see, the emphasis is on the performers rather than the recipient.
What Is Passive Voice?
In a passive sentence, the object or product of the action is the subject. Let's look at the sentences above in their passive form:
The attic was cleaned by Polly.
The book was borrowed by Michael.
The focus of these sentences has changed, and the recipients of the action are now in the subject position. But the attic and the book aren't doing anything.
However, it's easy to spot passive voice in simple sentences like the examples. Most writers construct more complex sentences where passive voice tends to hide.
Tracy battled the blustery snowstorm on the way to her stop and waited impatiently to be picked up by the bus.
As you can see, passive voice does not necessarily need to be in the main clause to plague a sentence.
Is Using Passive Voice Always Wrong?
One misunderstanding about passive voice is that it's an error. It isn't. More often than not, the passive sentences I've revised have been fine grammatically. Passive sentences, though, are not normally the best way to express your thoughts. After all, passive voice tends to be awkward and wordy, so you can tighten up your writing by using active voice instead.
However, at times passive voice can have some advantages. For instance, what if party taking action is unknown? Let's look at a common example:
Shots were fired.
Now, this can mean that either the writer knows who fired the shots and is protecting the guilty party or that there were no witnesses and the perpetrator escaped. If you rewrite this as an active sentences, you emphasize an unknown “someone”: Someone fired shots. The same applies if you are deliberately trying to emphasize the recipient or product of the action.
While there are times when passive voice can be useful, keep it to a minimum so your prose will be tight and active.
In writing, tone and voice go hand in hand. With tone, I was able to offer a straightforward explanation. But voice is a different matter. Put simply, if tone is your writing attitude, then voice is your writing personality. It's you being yourself on the page rather than trying to write like your favorite authors, although their influence will, no doubt, be present.
If that's it, voice should be easy, right? In theory perhaps, but why do so many new writers have trouble “finding their voice”? That depends on each writer and what he/she is trying to accomplish. Perhaps you are trying to imitate your favorite bloggers because their style has made them so successful, or maybe you're attempting to write like one of your genre's best-selling authors because “that's what publishers want.” Or it could be that you just need more experience. As I said, everyone has their reasons for struggling.
Finding Your Writer's Voice
Ultimately, like any other aspect of writing, you find and perfect your voice by sitting down and stringing words together into a story, poem, blog post, or article. Your writer's voice will start to surface when you ignore your inner critic and let the words flow.
1. Trust Your Writing Instincts
Are you willing to tackle a theme you're passionate about? Would you take risks in a story when your creative instincts are leading you in that direction? I've struggled with this too. Is it too strange? Too bold? Reaching beyond your comfort zone and taking risks will help your writer's voice.
2. Remember the Rules of Good Writing
Just because you are developing your writer's voice does not mean you can forget the rules of good writing. Sure, you may be able to bend and even break a few here and there, but ultimately they still apply. The more comfortable you are with the rules of good writing, the more your voice will shine within their boundaries.
3. Do Not Compare Your Voice to Others
It's tempting, especially since writers inevitably are readers as well. So whether it's your favorite author or one of your writing buddies, do not compare voices. They will be different, and remember that those you emulate also had to work to find their voices too.
4. Let Envy Work for You Rather Than against You
While too much envy can hurt you, let your jealousy inspire you instead. Let your desire for the same success others are experiencing drive you to work harder toward finding your voice and achieving your own writing goals.
Ultimately, it's about writing and putting yourself into it. Yes, you'll feel vulnerable, but if you see your voice as a stilted imitation of another, no doubt your audience will too. Write from the heart.
So how has your week been? With editing work and computer problems forcing me to move to another machine, this week has been a bit stressful. But I managed to keep up with this blog regardless (my other one wasn't so lucky, but I already have an editorial calendar set up for both next week to get me back on track). So I hope your week was a bit more productive on the writing front. So let's see what the web has to offer for this week.
You Can Use the 5 Laws of Writing Magnetic Blog Headlines Right Now: Headlines and/or titles are key in most media, but with blogs, it's even more so. When your reader searches for a topic, thousands of hits are often the result. Your headline needs to be able to compete with the others to grab your audience's attention. This article discusses how to do that.
Literary Devices: Foreshadowing: This post from Fantasy Faction gives some suggestions for incorporating foreshadowing elements in your fantasy story. Some of it can be applied to other genres as well, so even if you don't write fantasy, you may want to take a look.
7 Ways to Double What You Get Done Each Day: Not enough can be said about the importance of productivity. This article shares some helpful advice to increase your output. And don't forget to take breaks. It doesn't help to get a lot done if you burn yourself out to the point of being sick and hence useless for a few days at least. (Trust me. I've done this.)
7 Tricks to Write More with Less Willpower: I prefer to practice what I preach on this blog, but I am human. I needed this article badly this week, or maybe I just needed more willpower. If you need some help with this as well, these tips from The Write Practice will help get you writing when everything seems to be conspiring against you. Some of these are tips I've recommended as well as a few that I'll have to try.
Have a productive Friday and a great weekend!
Are you concerned with the tone of your writing? If not, you should be. The most fascinating topic can be rendered either tedious or distasteful if the proper tone isn't used. And I've edited my share of stories where the plot fit the thriller genre, but substantial verbiage needed to be cut to maintain an action-oriented tone. So are you establishing the appropriate tone for each piece and using it consistently throughout?
What Is Tone in Writing?
Tone is commonly referred to as the author's “attitude” toward the topic and is expressed through through the writer's choice of words and sentence structure. Is a work academic, angry, or upbeat and fun? The tone of a piece will affect how the reader responds, so using it effectively can make your writing more powerful.
Establishing Tone in Your Writing
When establishing tone for your writing, the genre is the first thing to consider. The tone of an academic essay would be formal with sophisticated sentence structures. But a blog post would be less formal, perhaps significantly so depending on the topic. And you wouldn't approach a thriller, which should be light on description and heavy on action, the same way you would a literary novel, where the use of language is an important element of the genre.
Most writers have established the genre of their piece early on. So once you decide what you intend to write, ask yourself the following questions:
Your answers will determine your approach to the topic as you write.
- Who is my audience?
- Why am I writing this piece?
- What am I looking to accomplish with it? How do I want my audience to react?
Improving Your Writing's Tone
While you should keep your piece's tone in mind as you work, it can be further refined in the revision stages. Here are a few easy ways to improve the tone of your writing:
1. Maintain Your Tone Consistently Throughout
While using different tones for different topics is necessary, shifting tones within the course of a single work can be confusing. Read your writing looking for places where the tone shifts and revise accordingly.
2. Cut, Cut, Cut
Do you have long wordy passages in a blog post or thriller novel? Do you have minimally relevant rants that will disrupt the tone and lead your reader astray? Now is the time to remove these passages. It doesn't matter how well written they are. If they do not fit the tone of the work, they don't belong there.
3. Recognize Major Tone Problems
Depending on your genre and topic, there are some tones that don't belong, and the piece should be rewritten. For instance, does anyone want to read a blog post with a whiney “woe is me—I've been wronged” tone throughout? Of course not. It offers no benefit to the audience. At this point, you need to reconsider your topic and what you are trying to say about it and rewrite the piece entirely.
So as you proceed with your writing, think carefully about the tone of your work.
One set of punctuation marks that writers and readers find confusing is often referred to collectively as the dash, meaning either the hyphen, the en dash, or the em dash. But these marks shouldn't be lumped together because of their similarity in appearance, as they play vastly different roles within a sentence.
Hyphens are small but meaningful single-character lines used for word connection. The hyphen's most common use is the joining of individual words into compounds. Since you can find this information in an earlier article, I won't delve into hyphenation rules here.
But where else do you see the small but powerful hyphen? Anyone who has reviewed an uncorrected proof probably has some familiarity with this type of hyphenation. Hyphens are placed at the end of printed lines when a word needs to be split. You see this in books and printed magazines and newspapers. This isn't a concern unless you need to review a proof and make sure that words are broken in the appropriate places and are not leaving one or two letters at the end of a paragraph.
Using the En Dash
An en dash is a bit longer than a hyphen and is roughly the width of an n, hence the name. The en dash is primarily used to connect numbers and occasionally words. With continuing numbers (times, page numbers, dates), it implies up to and including or through.
The years 2006–2008 were busy for the company.
In other contexts, such as directions or scores, it means to.
The club voted 129–36 to keep Bob as president for another year.
An en dash also replaces the hyphen when joining open compounds.
The United States–Canada border
Using the Em Dash
The em dash is longer than the en dash—about the width of an m. Of the three, the em dash is the most versatile. Em dashes are used to set off an emphasizing or explanatory element, so in some situations, they can replace commas, colons, semicolons, and parentheses—especially when there's an abrupt change in thought.
Angie brought up a compromise—a compromise, she hoped, would end the feud between her friends.
Alan called his team members—that is, the ones he still trusted—into a meeting.
An em dash can also represent a sudden break in thought or interruption in dialogue, as in the following example:
“Would he—could he—just clean out the accounts and run?” Marie asked.
Jim shook his head. “Michael doesn't have access to—”
“Well somebody did!” Rob interrupted.
The hyphen seems to be the default I've seen in client writing. It doesn't help that only one of these are easily rendered without knowing operating system or even program specific keyboard shortcuts. Get to know your word-processing program's shortcuts, as well as when to use each of these “dashes.”
I know this is unrelated, but with Mother's Day being this Sunday, I would like to wish any of my readers who are moms a happy Mother's Day. I hope you've had a good week leading up to it, and so you can finish your work today and enjoy a weekend of leisure, I'll keep this brief. Here is what the blogosphere has for us writers this week:
How to REALLY Follow Your Passion to the Bank: The $100 Startup Model: This guest post on ProBlogger is by Chris Guillebeau, the author of The $100 Startup, a book I've been hearing quite a bit about lately. This post talks about turning your passion into profit. This is a must read for the aspiring problogger or anyone looking to earn a living online.
Arsenic and Old Leaves: The Art of Poisoning Your Fantasy Characters: Parts 1 and 2: Are you writing a medieval fantasy novel or a historical fiction story set in the Middle Ages (particularly Europe)? Does your protagonist need to—ahem—eliminate someone? If so, these two articles offer some helpful tips for poisons you can use, on characters, of course.
Literary Devices: Motif: In this article, Amy Rose Davis discusses motifs in writing, including how they have been used successfully and how you can use them effectively. Examples of symbols, structural elements, and imagery will no doubt help generate ideas for how you can apply them in your stories. But like any other literary device, you should vary them and not overuse them.
Which Self-Publishing Is Right for YOU?: If you are considering self-publishing, take a look at this concise article that breaks down different self-publishing methods, from handling the entire process as a business to using inexpensive or free services. Whatever you choose, be sure to research all of your options first.
Happy writing and have a wonderful weekend!
Last week I mentioned blogging as a way to build confidence in your writing. But do you ever wonder if writing blog posts is a good investment of your time? After all, that's time you could be spending on other creative work. Before you decide to abandon your blog (or not start one at all if you don't have one), consider the benefits of blogging. It can be used to promote your work and even share blurbs to entice your potential audience. But maintaining a blog can have other benefits as well. It can also help improve your writing.
So what are the benefits of blogging for writers?
1. Regular Writing Habits
This is assuming, of course, that you intend to keep a regular or semiregular blogging schedule. If you only post once every few months, it defeats the purpose. But if you want to gain and keep a following, you need to provide regular content. That means posting at least once or twice a week if not more often. So you'll be writing at least as often as you post. You can transfer this writing discipline to your creative work.
2. An Audience for Your Writing
On the days when you don't feel like writing, you'll think of that your audience, the people who follow you on Twitter or have subscribed to your blog. If you stop posting regularly, they'll look elsewhere for content. Besides, as you develop a relationship with other bloggers in your niche and your regular readers, you'll look forward to offering them fresh reading material.
3. Feedback for Your Writing
Once you build an audience (and it can take time to build a substantial one), you'll find out where your writing needs improvement because your readers will not hesitate to let you know. You'll receive feedback in comments, emails, Twitter posts, and links to your blog from others. This feedback can tell you where your writing is strong and where you need to refine it.
4. Improvement in Your Writing
When I look back at some of the old posts from blogs I abandoned or deleted (I still have the posts in .rtf form), I cringe. In some places they were choppy, and in others, they were wordy and almost academic in style. But I've improved and continue to do so. And you will too. Writing regularly will make your sentence structure and word choice better as you refine your process. Blogging also allows you to experiment with style—another opportunity for writing improvement.
So do you blog? If so, how has it helped your writing?
Do you proofread all of your work? And I mean all of it. Obviously, with stories, articles, and longer works, it's important to carefully review them. But what about blog posts or emails to clients? On a few occasions, I've dashed off a message or blog post without proofing because I was in a hurry, and I regretted it every time. No exceptions.
I emphasize over and over that you should have another set of eyes proofread your writing after you do, whether it's an editor or a member of a writing group. However, with time-sensitive material, like a blog post, that isn't always possible. So careful proofreading of your work is necessary to keep your writing clean and professional.
Keep the following tips in mind as you review your writing for errors.
As with writing, proofreading requires concentration. Some errors will be obvious, but others can be subtle. So if you're going to catch them, you need to focus. You can't afford to multitask here. So turn off the music, close the social media sites, turn off the cell phone, and give your work the undivided attention it deserves.
2. Watch out for Usage Errors
Homophones are the biggest offender here. Have you ever confused to, too, and two or used accept when you should have used except? These are easy mistakes to make and just as easy to overlook since the words will be spelled correctly.
3. Check Punctuation
While you need to review your words closely, punctuation is important too. Don't let those little marks fool you. A misplaced or omitted punctuation mark can damage a sentence just as much as using the wrong word. Watch for misplaced or missing commas, periods used incorrectly, apostrophes in contractions and possessives, as well as others.
4. Print It Out
With shorter projects, this may be unnecessary, but for longer articles and stories, you should consider it. You read differently on paper than you do on the screen. And if you are alone, read it aloud. Your ear will catch awkward constructions more easily than your eyes will.
5. Have Someone Else Proof It
I know I said this was about proofreading work yourself, and that is important. But whenever possible, have someone else proofread your writing. You'll find there are a number of things you overlooked. If time doesn't permit this, go over it one more time yourself.
The first three on this list are necessary, even on a tight schedule. But on a long-term project, make time to print your writing out and read it aloud. And then have someone else read it. Communication is the goal, and clean copy is the most effective way do so without distracting your reader with errors.
Another busy week is coming to a close, and temperatures here are heating up. Have you played hooky yet? I've want to, but deadlines would not allow it. How has your week gone? Have you finished all of the tasks you've set out to complete? Regardless, it's time to wrap up the week with some weekly wisdom from the web.
Why I Steal Content (And Why You Should, Too): This caught my eye because I've done what this article talks about. I've rewritten some of my old articles that I've used elsewhere and posted them on this blog on days when I've been busy, which is fine as long as I still hold the rights to the content. Do you ever recycle content? If you don't, why not?
How To Turn Those Writing Dreams Into Goals & Actions: What are your writing dreams? Be aware that they are just wishes until you set goals and plan to achieve them. I've discussed the importance of setting writing goals. This article spells out how to turn writing dreams into goals.
5 Tips to Trap Your Characters: This guest post at The Write Practice covers trapping characters, not so much physically as mentally and emotionally (although being physically trapped is possible too). Look at the questions to consider as you create a prison for your main character.
When in Doubt, Do Something Drastic by Georgie Lee: This happens occasionally to every fiction writer, I suspect. Even if you have planned and plotted, your story seems to fall flat. So what should you do. According to Georgie Lee's post at Savvy Authors, do something drastic (as the title implies). The article gives a few examples that I'll let you check out for yourself.
I hope you have some time to get out this weekend. Enjoy!
Do you lack confidence in your writing? Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, you've probably gone through a time when you doubted your work was good enough for public consumption. Perhaps you've received some negative feedback, or maybe you're just coming out of a dry spell. Either way, you're not alone. Every writer experiences this at some point or another. But here's the good news. Like writer's block, it does not last.
When those doubts creep into your mind, deal with them before they cripple you. Like any other skill, the best way to overcome lack of confidence is to study and practice the craft of writing.
1. Write regularly
While not all of your writing needs to be for an audience, you need to practice often. That's the best way to hone your skills, and the improvement will build confidence in your craft. Are you a new writer? Or maybe you're just breaking out of a long period of writer's block. If so, start by keeping a private journal or responding to writing prompts.
Are you struggling with a certain aspect of your writing? Then work on it. Whether it's dialogue, description, grammar, you will improve with practice.
2. Read often
If you follow this blog with any degree of frequency, then you already know my sentiments about the importance of writers reading. It applies here. It exposes you to different writing styles, expands your vocabulary, and inspires you in your own creative work. And by all means, be versatile. If you usually read novels, try a collection of poems. Do you prefer memoirs and biographies? Consider a short story anthology. Expanding your horizons can help improve your writing.
3. Spend some extra time on revisions
Often, when you struggle with a certain aspect of writing, it's all too tempting to review those difficult spots quickly to get them over with. But when you do this, you miss an opportunity to make a rough passage shine. Spend extra time editing those elements you find problematic. You can improve your work dramatically.
4. Share your work and ask for feedback
There has never been a time when it was easier to share work and get feedback. If you're not ready to join a local writing group, many writing forums have private sections for members only. You can post short passages and get feedback from fellow writers. When you're ready to move beyond that, start a blog and post short passages there.
Ultimately, the goal is to build your confidence enough that you can join a local or online group and contribute regularly. Honest feedback will allow you to move on to publishing for a wider audience. And isn't that why you're here? You want your writing to be read.