Thursday, November 24, 2011

To be or not to be

While revising my novel these past couple of weeks, I've come to realize just how badly high school English damaged my writing technique. A parade of English teachers impressed upon me the importance of using the active, rather than the passive, voice. The active voice was always good, while the passive voice always bad. So far, not so bad. Stephen King agrees. But they went farther. Some teachers I had went so far as to mark up every time I used the word to be, whether it was passive voice or not. (Ironically, science papers were supposed to be entirely passive voice.) As a result, I'd developed a pathological aversion to the word "to be." Looking over my novel, which was first written ten years ago, I've come to see just how problematic this aversion was. Some of my writing was ridiculously convoluted just to avoid the words "was" or "were." A lot of my revision has been killing these overly contrived evasions and just rehabilitating the word "to be." So, for other writers recovering from high school English, here are three reasons to embrace "to be".

  1. Sometimes things just are. Compare "She was angry" to "She felt angry."  The first is a stronger statement, more definite and clear.  When I was trying to avoid "to be," I used equivalent words, words like "seem" or "feel" or "become" or "appear."  These are useful and sometimes necessary words, but they're weak words.  When something is, say that it is, don't try to weasel around it.
  2. A whole tense depends on "to be."  The imperfect tense, where we say "He was coming," as opposed to "He came" or "He did come," needs "to be" as a helper.  Imperfect is a useful tense, conveying incomplete past action, and I needed it to write a book in the past tense.  Without "to be" there's no imperfect tense, and it's a shame when that's gone.
  3. Passive voice is sometimes the right voice.  I'll admit, new authors often write in passive voice when they need to use active.  It can make writing timid and weak.  But the reason it does that is not the voice itself, but the subject of your voice.  We tend to use passive voice when things are happening to our characters, as opposed to when they are doing things.  That's what it's for: passive voice puts the emphasis on the object of the action, rather than the subject.  When our heroes stop doing things and things happen to them instead, then our writing is weak and timid, no matter what voice we use.  There are times when things do happen to our characters, and passive voice is perfectly good for keeping the focus on them even when they're not active, but if the characters are inactive too long, active voice won't save the story.

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