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BLATANT PASSIVITY DRIVES ME NUTS

March 11, 2015

This is a familiar subject and nothing new on my web site. Once in a while, I get “farred up” about it. The latest spark came from working the Las Vegas Astronomical Society Observer’s Challenge.

TAKING OVER

In a way, this article could also go on my Astronomy page, but this isn’t just about “astrominny” as I like to call it. At a recent event in Death Valley at Furnace Creek, I was discussing completely taking over the Observer’s Challenge with a friend, David. My partner, Roger resigned as of February so I became the sole editor and driving force.

We were talking about the ins and outs of editing it and how much fun I’ve always had with it. This discussion started around my insistence on deleting any mention of equipment brands, which was a decision my former partner, Roger and I made from the start. David said I should leave them (brand names) in while I, on the other hand always omit them to avoid a brand “love fest” which inevitably leads to equipment discussions and endless, stupid arguments about equipment. That’s not the intent of our Challenge.

That discussion led to the other “quirk” about astronomical writing, in that most of it tends to be very passive. That’s something I don’t allow and it’s pissed off some former contributors. Roger is of that school, writes passive and I always had to correct it, but he never protested or made a big issue out of it because he’s always trusted my judgment as the technical expert.

THE QUIRKS OF THE ASTRONOMICAL COMMUNITY

If you look at the observational notes of many famous visual observers in the astronomical community, you’ll see overwhelming passive phrases. It’s enough to make a knowledgeable writer of fiction and non-fiction have a meltdown.

“bla bla bla was noted.”

“The bla bla bla has been resolved.”

Instead of saying “I saw or I resolved it…”

Not all the contributors to the Observer’s Challenge write passive, but a good many do and I change their notes to active, while maintaining the integrity of what they say.

HOW PASSIVE IS PASSIVE?

Okay, let’s not go off the rails here and take out every bit of passivity from your manuscript. I’m certainly not advocating removing every was, has and every been with Word Search. Geez. You can sanitize a manuscript and suck the life right out of it. The words have to breathe.

The thing is that you have to develop a feel for passive and put it in its place. Extreme is just as bad as not enough.

Was, has and been are all words in our language and need to be used, as well as other words deemed passive (those aren’t the only three!). The key is learning when and where to use them.

Less in narrative and some in dialogue is a good balance.

When I edit the Observer’s Challenge, I rarely find passive writing that works. Sure, it matches the writing of the big boys, but it doesn’t match the standards I set for this project Roger and I started in February, 2009.

PASSIVE DOESN’T WORK IN MOST CASES

Learn to write active but with life in your work. That means practice, practice, practice!

Passive doesn’t work in fiction and most non-fiction. It weakens the prose.

Happy writing!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. B.T. Economy permalink
    March 16, 2015 3:56 pm

    Passive writing has always been my greatest challenge and one reason why I’ve always needed a good editor. I know exactly what you are talking about. My father was an electronic engineer and your examples here are perfect examples of how he wrote. Technical. Maybe that’s how I learned to write passive to begin with. (Passive just sounds better to me. 😦 )
    It’s been a horrible struggle over the years but I realize I’ll never be published or taken seriously writing passive!

    • March 19, 2015 2:38 am

      Ann,

      Yeah, it’s easy to fall into the trap. It’s a lot harder to do it right and make the prose more direct and active. I struggled with it for a long time also.

      Thanks!

      Fred

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