Passive Peeve

I’m going to stray off topic today, because this is my blog and I’m in that kind of mood.  So, I’m going to talk about writing.  Specifically, I’m going to talk about one of my biggest pet peeves: People who edit badly because they’re too rules-bound.

I volunteer for a beta-reading web site.  For each chapter or story, the moderators assign two readers.  This week, I had the misfortune of being paired with one of my least favorite fellow betas.  I was the second reader, so I got to see all his comments before mine.  I should mention that this guy is frequently a complete jerk.  This is the same person who thought Wikipedia was an appropriate source to correct my use of upstate New York lingo.  Dude, I live in New York.  I’ve been upstate many, many times.  I worked in the system I’m writing about (education), and I’m married to a teacher.  Wikipedia?  Really?  Some of us have an affectionate nickname for this beta which I won’t repeat here.  Suffice it to say, he’s one of the people I would like hand over to the woman who wants to punch people in the throat, or maybe Jenna Marbles could just tell him where to get off.

Throat-punching lady and Jenna aside, my problem with this particular assignment wasn’t just this guy’s beta-reading personality.  No, he did something that is increasingly making me want to throw things at the computer screen: Correcting “passive voice.”  I can’t believe how many people–including professional editors!–have no idea what passive voice actually is and choose to correct anything that even looks like it could be.

The Jerk highlighted two paragraphs of the piece we read and commented that the passive voice “stood out” in them.  First of all, out of seven sentences, only two were questionable.  Second, neither needed correction.

In the first instance, it wasn’t passive voice.  The writer had used a legitimate verb tense, past continuous.  Past continuous is important–it distinguishes between discrete events and ongoing actions.  In the case of the story, the writer described several characters entering a room to find someone sitting in a chair.  Using the past continuous verb form, “was sitting,” informs readers that the person did not sit down when the others arrived but had been sitting and continued to do so after their arrival.  It’s an entirely appropriate phrase, and it is not passive voice.

The second sentence was legitimately passive voice:

A door opened in the wall.

Doors don’t just open; a person, the wind, or some other force has to act upon the door.  However, the above sentence is good use of passive voice.  Active phrasing, “Someone opened a door in the wall,” wouldn’t have worked here.  It’s boring.  Telling us that a door opened is mysterious.  We, the readers, do not know who or what opened the door.  This is a situation in which we want a less active phrasing in order to draw the reader into the story.  The door opening as the result of some as-yet unknown force builds tension and intrigue.

Which brings me to why this makes me so ragey.  When we–as writers or editors–become so focused on not breaking the rules, the writing becomes constricted.  Grammatical rules can be broken under the right conditions.  Provided we know and understand the “official” way to structure sentences, we can bend words to suit our purposes.  It’s what separates good writers from great ones, and good editors from great ones.

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10 thoughts on “Passive Peeve

  1. While I get your point about effective use of passive voice, and that sentence is a great example of when to use it, my comment if I were editing is that doors typically don’t open in windows. Unless this is some kind of fantasy or sci-fi book where a door to another dimension might open in the middle of the room, a door opening in a wall seems a bit superfluous. And even if this were a fantasy book where doors to other universes might just open out of nowhere, I would generally say that most people presume that, unless the author says otherwise, the mention of a door by itself means a normal door. “A door opened” conveys the same mystery without jarring the reader to think “where else would a door open.” But that is just my two cents. I am not an expert or even a beta editor.

    • It made sense in context. And it was indeed a sci-fi story. I think that’s another example of how it’s important to read for finer details. In fact, the idea of slashing “unnecessary” words is also from the same poor writing instruction–I think I have a whole article about that bookmarked somewhere. It comes largely from Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style,” which contains so much awful advice that I couldn’t even begin to blog on it. Thankfully, others have done that work for me. If some of the greatest writers had listened to the advice in EoS, we wouldn’t have some of the finest literature ever written.

  2. I’m still giggling over said nickname of which you will not name!! Good post, and definitely something people need to remember. I think a lot of people have a hard time figuring out what passive voice is in general, so they overcompensate. Not that I have ever done that. Nope, not at all. =P

    • Oh, I’ve done it a lot. I finally looked stuff up and went, “Hm…I may be overdoing it here.” I think it was a sentence I wanted someone to fix because it seemed “passive” to me, but the fix made it completely awkward and changed the meaning of the sentence. So I looked to see if it was ok to leave it. I think I spend about 1/3 of my beta reading time looking things up to see what the “rule” is.

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