Editing Tips #1: Passive Voice

I wanted to start a series of posts about common issues editors see again and again while editing manuscripts (including RPG manuscripts). Let me know if you find this valuable and if there are topics you’d like me to cover. Now on to the content.

Passive Voice…

Which of these sentences is better?
1) “The apple was eaten.”
2) “Bob ate the apple.”

In sentence #1, “something” is being done to “something else” by “someone”. This sentence construct requires more words (bad), is harder for our brains to process (bad), and can lead to ambiguity (really bad).

How can it lead to ambiguity? People often write sentences in which it isn’t clear who is doing the action.

Good: Bob ate the apple.
Bad: The apple was eaten by Bob.
Worse: The apple was eaten.
Why is the 2nd sentence problematic? In both sentences, Bob is the one doing the action, but the second sentence focuses on the apple rather than the person eating it.

The 3rd sentence is even worse because we don’t know who did the eating. Is it referring to the state of the apple (that it is a half-eaten or entirely devoured apple), or is it talking about the fact that someone ate it? We can avoid this problem altogether by using the active voice. Tell us who ate that delicious apple. Make them the star of the show. Why make your readers guess?

There are exceptions where we do want to focus on the intended target of the action as opposed to the person doing the action. This happens sometimes in RPG mechanics text. In each of these instances, decide if it’s absolutely necessary that the “victim” or “target” of the action be the subject of the sentence. If it makes just as much sense when you write in the active voice, use the active voice. Only use passive voice if it makes things easier to understand (which is rare).

About Eytan Bernstein

40. Bay Area-based writer/editor/RPG designer.
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