Write Wow!

Writing tips and techniques from the publisher of Swimming Kangaroo Books. Send your 3-page writing sample to be critiqued to dindy@swimmingkangaroo.com with the word "critique" in the subject heading. Your submission will be critiqued on the blog, but your name will not be used unless you give permission.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Active and Passive Voice

One of my writers asked about the use of Active and Passive voice:
I keep reading that passive voice are words ending with ing. and needed to be changed to active. I go through all my work trying to get rid of ing words. Is this a mistake I'm making? Always eager to learn.

I had "Jesus, is that real?" he asked, his voice sounding steady and unperturbed. Active and passive words do confuse me and I like sounding instead of sounded much better. If you have the time maybe you could put examples on your website for us mugs to study.

This writer asks a very good question. Many writers have a difficult time sorting out active and passive voice and when to use "ing" verbs.

First let’s look at voice. Voice tells whether a subject acts or is acted upon. In active voice, the subject performs the action:
The dog barks. (The dog is doing the barking.)

In passive voice, something is done to the subject:
The dog is annoying to many people. (The dog is considered to be annoying by many people.)

When writing fiction, it is generally considered more effective to write in active voice whenever possible. Active voice emphasizes the doer and usually requires fewer words. It is crisper and puts the reader into the action. Generally passive voice can be converted to active voice by removing the “to be” verb forms and using present or past voice. For example:
Passive: The dog is eating.
Active: The dog eats.

However, “ing” doesn’t just signify passive voice. It also is used for the present participle of verbs, which denotes a time relationship. In the sentence: “The dog barked, wagging his tail.” the verb “wagging” is a present participle, denoting that the dog was wagging his tail at the same time that he barked.

The present participle is used to add description to an active verb phrase, in which sense it acts as a verbal adjective.

In the example given by my writer, "Jesus, is that real?" he asked, his voice sounding steady and unperturbed, "asked" is quite properly in past tense, signifying the action that "he" performed. The use of the verb "sounding" is also correct: it is the present participle form of the verb "sound" and indicates how he sounded at the same time that he asked the question, thereby acting as a verbal adjective.

It also would have been correct to write, "Jesus, is that real?" he asked. His voice sounded steady and unperturbed. Note, however, that it was necessary to separate the two phrases into two sentences. In this case, "sounded" is in the form of a past participle, and is still a verbal adjective, indicating how his voice sounded.

Either way is correct and the good writer would want to use both forms in order to vary the sentence structure.

So when determining whether to use an “ing” form, look at the purpose of your verb. Do you want to tell us what your character did? If so, then you want to use active voice.
John broke a window.

But do you want to tell us HOW your character did something? If so, then you may want to use a present participle verb form.
Running fast, John broke a window.

You can also use active voice instead of the present participle. If you are going to do that, then make sure your verb tenses match and use a conjunction between the two verbs:
“John ran fast and broke a window.”

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Monday, January 14, 2008

A Publisher/Editor's Pet Peeves

As an editor and publisher, I have pet peeves just like anyone else, and most of those involve formatting. I can generally adjust to an author's style quirks, and misspellings and grammatical errors are the copy editor's problem, not mine. However, I am the one who formats Swimming Kangaroo's books for print, and in the process of doing so I have found that there are some things that just drive me nuts.

One thing I have found is that people have no idea when to start a new paragraph. Lots of people seem to think that you should start a new one before every bit of dialogue. For example, they will write a passage like this:

Sarah opened the letter and read it, her brow furrowing with concern. She walked
over to the window, opened it and stuck her head outside.

"John!" she yelled. "You'd better come in here."

John continued his run down the basketball court, dribbling until he was almost beneath the hoop, then jumping and sinking the ball in for the goal. He paused and scowled up at her, his face softening when he saw the lines on her face.

"Okay babe," he said. "I'll be right there."
There is absolutely no reason in the world why Sarah's dialogue could not have been moved up into the first paragraph. Likewise there is no reason in the world why John's dialogue couldn't have been moved up into the 3rd paragraph. I halfway suspect that some writers put the maximum amount of paragraphs in to increase the length of the novel. Doesn't work, folks!

Okay, so here's some general guidelines. Change paragraphs when you change speakers or ideas. The passage above could be done very effectively as two paragraphs, one for each speaker. Also change paragraphs if you find that your paragraph is getting too long and unwieldy and you need to break it up. But otherwise let it go.

Another little formatting quirk is the people who indent the first line of a paragraph with spaces instead of a tab or an indent setting. If the writer uses spaces, then when I am formatting I have to remove all the spaces. Folks, it's a pain in the butt! You have a tab key on your computer for a reason-- use it! If you are a little more tech minded, go into your paragraph settings box and set your first line indent for .5 or .3 or for whatever floats your boat.

Finally, for those of you have wondered when to use "who" and when to use "whom", or if you've gotten confused between "that" and "which", check out the Swimming Kangaroo Forum. We've set up a special section where you can go and ask your questions about grammar, punctuation and style. So come on and ask away!


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