This is our second Christmas in our new (to us) house. We got lights up, a new tree, and some other decorations. And of course, we shopped. It’s a good year in many respects. Sad in others.
After Thanksgiving, and just into December, we had one daughter visiting with her kids when the doorbell rang. It was a family of carolers who were caroling in support of a ministry for Philippine relief. They sang three or four songs and we gave them a donation.
But that started the season for us in a good, heartfelt way. Christmas has always been special for me. The family was always together during the holidays, it seemed. This made my first Christmas away from home, stationed on the USS Newport News (CA-148), difficult. I called home from a phone booth near the pier on Christmas Eve. Norfolk, Virginia, was cold, wet, and dark. Not the white Christmas I grew up with. It was lonely and most of my shipmates were gone for the holidays. I was too new, no leave built up, and got to stand watches in the quiet dark days.
Even though I wasn’t deployed at the time, it felt like it. It was a different time in the U.S. in the 1970s and few expressed compassion for service members away from home on the holidays.
Today, we deploy more than 300,000 service members outside the U.S. Almost a million serve on active duty in our own country. Many of those can’t join their families during this Christmas season. We often deploy our service members to inhospitable, downright scary places.
During this season, please try to remember those serving and deployed. A prayer, a card, a call can mean a lot to someone far from home, especially for the first time.
I’ll break it down for you. Active voice keeps your reader engaged with action verbs. Passive voice puts the reader to sleep.
Back in the day, my mentor in the Navy, Senior Chief Journalist Raymond P. Lucasey*, put it this way when he found a passive voice sentence in my work.
“Why do you keep backing up into your sentences?”
He was right. Passive voice not only puts a sleeper hold on a reader, but puts the predicate first in the sentence and uses a lame verb that doesn’t direct action at all. It gets it all backward. Active voice gets your subject up front and uses a more powerful verb to direct the action.
We weren’t writing fiction, then. We were writing news releases and other material for media folks, as well as material for historical records of our command. Chief Lucasey demanded quality from me in everything we did that went out for media consumption. “What they do with it after they get it is on them,” or words to that effect were his sentiments.
A side effect of passive voice is it adds a lot unnecessary words to your writing. Cleaning up and replacing passive voice with active voice makes your writing tighter and more on point. Crisper. More intense.
But, I’m lazy and I need help. I’ve used grammar checkers since their inception back in the ’80s and I wrote reviews of them in an academic journal (Text Technology). But, that was when they were a separate, add-on application you might use with Word Perfect or Word. Then, software companies integrated the spelling and grammar checkers into the word-processing applications. Now, you have spelling and grammar checking as a menu option in the Edit drop down menu of your editor of choice. The problem with this is all you get are these colored underlines in your text where the spelling or grammar needs work.
For example, the above paragraph originally had two instances of passive voice. When I tested the text in Pages and Scrivener, they indicated nothing wrong with the paragraph. They both marked the “your” words in the previous paragraph, indicating I might substitute “you’re” (wrong). Both Pages and Scrivener have limited grammar checking capability. You can turn it on or off, but you can’t drill down into settings and configure the grammar checker for your needs. I’d love to find a reasonable grammar checker I can add to my Mac to help. Until then, I found a solution I can use until something better comes along.
I copy the text from a scene in Scrivener, paste it to a new post in my WordPress editor, which uses After the Deadline. Then I click the spelling/grammar checker. Where there are passive voice instances, or other errors, I make the corrections in Scrivener (because copy and pasting back to Scrivener makes a mess of the text).
Granted, a good grammar checker isn’t going to solve all your active/passive voice issues. You still need to know the difference between your and you’re; there, they’re, and their; to (toward) and too (also or excessive); and its (possessive) and it’s (it is contraction). It helps you take a more critical look at your writing. Is it okay to use passive voice sometimes? Well, yes. I allow characters to say things using passive voice in dialog sometimes. Not a lot, though. My rule is it cannot get in the way of the story or the action.