ACTIVE SEARCH: HE COULD SEE

Our old friends Strunk & White advise: Use the active voice. And though I’m not a 100% devotee of The Elements of Style, this is advice that every author needs to hear and do his or her level best to follow even if, like me, you occasionally (or often) fail to see the passive voice wander its way toward your own writing.

(See what I did there?)

It is simply impossible to edit your own writing. That’s why there are people like me in the world—editors. We really do actually serve a vital function, and even for you indie author-publishers out there. You can not look at your own writing objectively, and neither can I.

But that doesn’t mean either of us should surrender to whatever gaps there are in our craft and rely on the expertise of others. We need to learn how to write well, and keep learning how to write better. The simple truth is that an editor or agent who reads your manuscript will expect it to be a first draft, and therefore imperfect. But there’s a fine line—an invisible line, really—between good enough to fix with an edit and not good enough to even bother to edit. That being the case you want to get your writing as close to perfect as you can, secure in the knowledge that there’s no such thing as perfect anyway.

That’s a long, one might say “passive,” way of saying: Write good.

And one of the ways you write good fiction is not by avoiding the passive voice entirely (even Strunk & White admit it occasionally has its place) but by making its inclusion in your writing a conscious decision and not an unconscious mistake.

I already told you you aren’t going to be able to see that in your own writing, that you can’t be objective, so . . . what the heck?

Good news, people: You can’t be objective, but Word can!

One way to spot passive constructions in your own writing is to have your computer search for it, and though it may not be possible to set up specific searches that will find all instances of passive voice, there are a few tricks that will point out a few of the most common passive constructs. It’s important here to state that what you’re doing is searching for it, not replacing it. You want to FIND these phrases, then go into the text and fix them in a deliberate way, specific to that sentence, that paragraph, that scene, that collection of characters, etc.

Try this one first:

he could see

Since you can’t do a whole word search on a phrase, this will also find she could see.

This is what you might find:

He could see the space shuttle narrowly avoid the tumbling asteroid.

What’s wrong with that?

All of your writing should be coming from a specific point of view. Whoever that character is who’s seeing the space shuttle narrowly avoid the tumbling asteroid is also seeing, hearing, tasting, touching . . . experiencing everything you’re describing. That being the case, why specify that he (or she) could see this thing happening? The easy fix:

The space shuttle narrowly avoided the tumbling asteroid.

That thing just happened, and we (your readers) know that the POV character could see that, otherwise how would we know?

What the original sentence does is add a separation between your character and your reader. I’ve talked about this idea of emotional distance before. Let your readers share in the experiences of your characters, as those experiences are happening, rather than reporting from arm’s length what that character was seeing, hearing, etc. “He could see” has the effect of rendering that moment as hearsay.

But then again, Strunk & White did tell us that sometimes the passive voice is appropriate. This is why you let your computer find that phrase, but don’t let it make any creative decisions for you. If all you’re doing is replacing he could see with nothing, just deleting it, if the POV character was a woman you’d end up with:

S the space shuttle narrowly avoid the tumbling asteroid.

You want to  make the full edit.

And you may  want to leave it as is, if the context of the scene calls for it:

Galen activated the exterior camera and after tense seconds of fine tuning he thought he could see the space shuttle narrowly avoid the tumbling asteroid, then the screen filled with static.

This is stressing the fact that Galen is watching this happen through an unreliable device, so he—and your reader—isn’t sure if that’s exactly what was happening. Leave that alone.

And as always, all rules are suspended in dialog. Rarely does anyone speak in perfect, complete sentences. And characters often have to report things:

“Galen said that when he looked in the telescope he could see the space shuttle narrowly avoid the tumbling asteroid,” Bronwyn reported.

Don’t just cut he could see, use Word’s objective tool to find it then your subjective tool (your amazing creative brain) to decide if you really want that there or if there’s a more active way of saying it.

I’ll throw up some more of these in the weeks ahead, but for now let’s get back to actively writing active fiction!

 

—Philip Athans

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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12 Responses to ACTIVE SEARCH: HE COULD SEE

  1. Mel Odom says:

    I’m saving this one for my students. I get so tired of repeating myself!!!!

  2. mjtedin says:

    I do this all the time. Is your post based on my submission? You’d be surprised how much of this construction I already removed.

  3. This isn’t you, Mike… it’s just about everybody, including me!

  4. mjtedin says:

    The other thing I notice myself writing a lot is “He could feel”. I try to replace it with “He felt”. I like your suggestion, though. Just describe what he sees and feels. The fact that he sees or feels it is implied.

  5. LV Barat says:

    How do you feel about the whole “ing” thing? “He was trying”, “He was seeing”, “She was feeling”, etc.? I’ve heard elsewhere to get rid of as many ‘ings’ as possible because they represent yet another passive voice.

    • Philip Athans says:

      That’s a slightly more complex issue and worthy of a post all its own. The same advice applies, though–no blind search and replaces! Still, in general, He walked across the bridge. is generally better than He was walking across the bridge. But then the latter has its place: He was walking across the bridge when the kraken surfaced under it. Right?

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