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(c) 2015 Christiana Lambert

(c) 2015 Christiana Lambert


Winter term, freshman year, on a bleak, white-washed January Ohio day, I showed up for the first day of that necessary evil of college: composition or expository writing or whatever you want to call the class each college makes you take to ensure you write well enough to get through any future college writing assignments. That day I met my future academic adviser, though I didn’t know it yet. The major hadn’t chosen me yet so I still had the adviser assigned to me before I showed up on campus. Dr. B. seemed the picture of one of those common caricatures of what a literature professor is like—he was a former beatnik with a salt and pepper early Beatles’ style haircut who rode an old black bike across campus, keeping his small manual typewriter set in the mesh basket attached to the front. He wanted us to call him by his initials or his nickname, but I stuck with the formal “Dr.” whenever I addressed him. I was way more uptight than this man, but we got along just fine, nonetheless.

When I left for college, I wrote well enough—you know, for a person who could apply basic grammar rules. My papers made sense and I could say what I meant. Still, like most of my peers, I did not write well enough to test out of the basic composition class. At the time I put that down to a writing prompt that had something to do with the Iran Hostage Crisis. As I mentioned in the previous post, I was really not into thinking that deeply at that point in time, but I’m pretty certain the reason I didn’t test out of the class was because I needed to take it not because of the difficulty of the prompt.

What I learned most in his class was less about writing with correct grammar—because I already did that well—and more about how to create writing that sounded fresh in a variety of settings. Yes, we could insert fragments (incomplete sentences) as long as we applied them sparingly and used our pens to indicate we knew what and where they were. (Excuse me while I apologize to him right now since it appears I often ignore his “sparingly” rule regarding usage of fragments—sorry, Dr. B.)

However, the fragments are just something that really resonates with who I am as a writer. I imagine I might write better if I stopped making quite so many asides. Not that I’m stopping. (Mark that frag. for Dr. B.) What mattered most was that he taught me and all my classmates the difference between writing in passive and active voice. He challenged us to circle every instance of passive voice we used in our papers and to leave as few as necessary in the final drafts. Even if I hadn’t majored in English or chosen to write/edit, I would have needed to learn this—hey, I think everyone needs to know how to write in active voice. Not only does writing become more immediate with active voice, but using it also forces writers to search deeper for just the right verb, something that tends to develop a more creative process.

To this day, I struggle to get through a book that distances itself through passive language. Maybe reading all those (mostly ancient) philosophy texts my first weeks in college influenced the amount of relief I felt from learning how to bring about some clarity in writing! Yet, I have read books on topics such as probability, process management, business, psychology, and DNA but only if written well—which for me tends to mean the writing uses active language. Even the chemistry and astronomy textbooks I proofread last fall avoided most usages of passive voice—the writing spelled out concepts in a straightforward and accessible manner that should aid future students in applying those concepts to the associated exercises and experiments.

Some of life happens to us—passive voice sometimes works in the tales we tell of those stories, but not always—unless, of course, we are deliberately trying to downplay the action. Imagine the emotional and visual difference between saying “I was hit by a car” versus saying “A car hit me”—one creates distance and a sort of matter-of-fact impression of the news while the other projects a strong picture that could lead to a more visceral response. Nonetheless, the first statement is exactly how my mother finally admitted she did remember after all that a car hit her first before she came home and fell again. Though my mom had a story to tell, she did not want to do so—she deliberately fell back on passive voice to obfuscate the facts.

Don’t make the mistake of using passive voice when you really want others to hear your story, though. Doesn’t matter if it’s an annual report for a business or a technical how-to piece or the story of how your mother broke her foot—if you want the reader to stay with the story, write in active voice as often as you can.

(Even after a car hit my mother, she healed well. Thank goodness we soon found a doctor practiced enough at listening to seniors that he could interpret passive voice narratives meant to conceal health and/or safety concerns.)

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