Active vs. Passive Voice, some thoughts for Tea and others

Hello.  Welcome to my academic blog.  This where I re-trained myself how to write.  When I was a graduate student each sentence was an agonizing construction.  I couldn’t move on to the next until it perfectly captured the idea I wanted to express.  This was slow and stressful.  It also made me less open to revision and restructuring than I should have been.  One of the first great pieces of writing advice I ever received was to write like I teach or lecture.  I started calling my drafts “scripts”and putting in “stage directions” this helped me think about how my thoughts sounded and sequentially communicated the points of evidence my argument required.   I love writing letters and casual sketches.  This blog transformed by writing again by giving me a drafting space for serious ideas in my most casual voice.  I enjoy my research.  I find it hard at times, funny at times.  It isn’t linear.  My final research needs structure but my first tackling of a piece of evidence doesn’t have to be such.

WHAT THE HECK does this have to do with active/passive voice?  Too much passive voice is a way teachers and peers habitually criticize the style of our writing.  Yes, you may want a gripping writing style, one with a varied, distinctive authorial voice but this may have nothing to do with your verb choice!

  1. Why do you think you use too much passive voice? In what context did you learn this rule?  Who has said this criticism to you most recently?  Did they justify their criticism with regard to a particular instance of your writing?  Or, did they just present it as a truism?
  2. Take a few of academic book chapters and peer reviewed articles in your field that you really admire.  Randomly select a couple of pages from each.   Photocopy them and then highlight each and every verb on the page.  One color for active and one color for passive.   Do your academic heroes really avoid passive voice?   When are they using active voice the most?
  3. When you sit down to write, take a deep breath, and just write.  Don’t worry about grammar, syntax, or style.  (Do worry about making some basic citations – so you don’t have to reconstruct these from nothing later.)   Give yourself permission to write what ever words come.  Even sentences don’t matter, resort to lists if that makes it easier.
  4. Re-read your work after a night’s sleep.  Re-word and add and delete freely.

BUT, Professor Yarrow, I do that and I still can’t figure out how to get rid of the dreaded passive voice?!  Ok, Ok.  Here are some basic tips, but really this is usually a red herring issue.

5. Go back to those highlighted pages.  Are there ‘active verbs’ that you highlighted that are really just doing the passive verb’s job?  ‘X illuminates Y’,  ‘Juxtaposing blah and blah, reveals blah blah blah blah…’  That sort of jargon.    Borrow some verbs and sentence structures from your academic heroes.

6. Remember that active voice is most relevant in, well, ACTIVE parts of your writing.  Narration is most typical.  When describing what happened you should be able to report actor, action, and result in active voice.   When you are describing what is relevant about a piece of evidence or how it move your argument forward those are also points where active verb choices are more called for.

7. One of the big problems with passive voice is that it suppresses agency.  The lamp was broken.   The lamp was broken by Billy.  Billy broke the lamp.  As a historian you are seeking out not just what happened but also the why and by who.   It may feel safer not to ascribe agency, but it is your job.  After the Civil War, thousands of blacks were displaced.  What displaced them?!  We could write instead: The Civil War displaced thousands of blacks.  It’s active voice sure, but is it really intellectually any stronger?!  The first may be more honest as it leaves open the question of agency.

But really.  Don’t worry about it.  It is usually a lazy criticism, an excuse not to engage with the substantive intellectual issues OR an inability to suggest or guide positive reframings.


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