Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Passive Voice is Found in Your Query Letter

Back when I was an English major in college, my TAs would always warn us about writing our papers in the passive voice. I nodded along with the rest of my classmates, but in truth I had no idea what the "passive voice" even was. It sounded like something vaguely horrible and dangerous, but I had enough problems trying to figure out what in the heck James Joyce was writing about.

Now that I'm an agent, I know that the truth is even more serious: the passive voice is ready to kill your query letter.

What, ask you, is the passive voice? Good question. Here's a website that will explain it better than I can, but basically it's a way of writing a sentence without attributing an action to an actor.

Here are some examples:

Spencer called me on his homeboy phone. -- normal sentence
Calls were made on Spencer's homeboy phone. -- passive voice

The monkey's bananas were stolen. -- passive voice
Spencer stole the monkey's bananas. -- normal sentence

Make sense? It basically kills a sentence by making it vague and dull since the actions aren't attributed to a person or thing.

Well, some people manage to write nearly their entire query letter in the passive voice. It goes something like this:

Vengeance will be found. Mistakes will be punished. When his dreams are shattered, Spencer is compelled to find the enemies who have caused his life to be destroyed...

This makes me pound my head on my desk. Vengeance will be found HOW? Mistakes will be punished HOW? HOW were his dreams shattered? WHO are the enemies? HOW are they destroying his life? WHY don't you just go ahead and rip my hair out for me?

So watch out for the passive voice, the silent killer of query letters, and of writing in general. A novel is not a place where things happen, a novel is a place where characters do things.


Demon Hunter said...

Do you see passive voice quite a bit in the queries you receive? I would think that most people would know to summarize the novel in a paragraph. Your examples were on point. :*)

Nathan Bransford said...

demon hunter-

Sadly, the passive voice is found in many query letters these days. And it is causing many headaches.

Adaora A. said...

You make everything so easy for people who want to query you Nathan. Thanks alot for that. I'll be sure not to keep you medicated on advil liquid gels and cold packs to the head. :::Re edits query letter::

Mark Terry said...

My question:

Why do 99.9% of all writers say:

She was wearing...

Rather than

She wore...

??? Inquiring minds want to know.

cyn said...

hurrah! keep these gems coming! =D

D. Robert Pease said...

Thanks Nathan. I don't know how many times I will need to be hit over the head to get this concept. Umm... I mean... I don't know how many times fine Agents as yourself will hit me over the head with... I mean... Oh never mind.


sex scenes at starbucks said...

A novel is not a place where things happen, a novel is a place where characters do things.

That should go in bold print on the top of every website and book on writing.

was wearing is a misuse of past progressive. PP indicates a "continuing action" while another action happens. So technically, she "was wearing" clothes while doing something else works (unless she got nekkid first).

Hmmm. Nekkid.

Sorry. Got distracted.

Misuse occurs when there is no other action, or when the reader naturally understands that she is still wearing clothes while the new action occurs.

I find a search and destroy on WAS solves many verb issues, not just the past progressive ones.

Dwight's Writing Manifesto said...

I'm a Tech Writer by trade, so passive voice is rampant in my neck of the literary woods. Object have sh!t happen to them all the time, as far as Engineers are concerned.

People speak in passive voice because it's perceived as being more polite. (Ambiguity = polite. Go figure.)

Unfortunately, people write in passive voice because they hear it in their head.

I maintain it is THE hardest writing habit to break. It's the last of the grammar hurdles. I promise you that you can pick up any best seller on the table at BookWorld and find three examples of passive voice in less than two minutes.

But for the love of God, get it out of your query letter and all other business correspondence.

Michael Reynolds said...

A guy who writes the query that way probably hasn't completed his book. He's sending a query, hoping you'll bite on the concept, figuring he'll rush the book out if you say yes.

Dave F. said...

Dorothy Parker is reputed to have said:

"The Passive Tense should not be used."

Erik said...

I advise learning German. Passive voice practically does not exist in that language, so once you think a bit bilingually the passive voice will be purged from your speech patterns.

I also reccomend avoiding the Midwest, where passive voice is rather standard. That could be seen as a good idea, you bet.

Demon Hunter said...

Oh no, Nathan! I'll send you virtual Tylenol and chocolates. Those people obviously have not read your blog or the retired Miss Snark! :*)

My query and synopsis are fine, it's just my polishing that's draining the life from me now, but it's worth it. A saleable novel is what I am working towards.

Anonymous said...

Once, as a joke, I wrote an entire bank robbery scene in passive voice. It was amazing how it gave the sense of a huge hole in the middle of the scene, because the people taking actions simply weren't on the page.

Passive voice is useful for somethings: If you don't know who committed a murder, then "Bob was killed while trying the crash the set of THE HILLS" works just fine. If the person receiving the action is the most important thing at the moment, then "Bruce Willis was hit in the leg by a sniper's bullet" does the job.

Most times, though, Active sounds better.

Josephine Damian said...

Not just novels and queries but short stories as well.

I'm a screening judge in a national short story contest, and PV is a big reason for my not letting a story advance to the semi-finalist round.

bitterhermit said...

I was under the impression that the space monkeys stole the bannanas. Yes, we have none today.
As a former TA myself, I applaud this post above most others. Such writing is useful for politics and social sciences, but I've always recommended against it nonetheless. Good writing is good communication. We write well when we communicate effectively.
However . . . is great writing more important than great story-telling?
Have a super day!

Ghost Girl said...

Amen, Nathan!

Kim Stagliano said...

Gah! Passive voice! Also a killer on resumes. But the all time, hands down favorite of politicians who need to say something without assuming any blame. The old, "mistakes were made." Lord I hate that.

And Dave K - I have a cocktail napkin that I picked up at The Algonquin just last week that reads, "I love a Martini - but two at the most. Three I'm under the table; Four, I'm under the host." Dorothy Parker. She will be missed.

Steph said...

But Nathan, what if you extend the passive voice?

Veronica killed Jake. <- active

Jake was killed by Veronica. <- passive

'By' is a trademark word of the passive voice.

Obviously, an entire query letter written like that would be annoying, but the same could be said about a query written only using active. Shouldn't we mix it up a little? :)

- Steph

Adaora A. said...

@Steph- I'm not Nathan but he seems to have made it very clear that all intending to query him must avoid passive voice like the plague. Perhaps it is another way of him forcing the personal letter out of us all - thereby preventing a heart attack...and insomnia.

I see a definite pattern here.

Nathan Bransford said...


I wouldn't rule out that the occasional use of the passive voice could be well-placed (such as, say, if one were writing dialogue for an evasive character), but I don't really think it would be possible to write an effective letter in the passive voice. It's just vague by definition, and vague has no place in a query letter.

Adaora A. said...

I have a question which is admittedly off of the passive voice subject matter but I've wanted to ask.

You've said you like humor in query letters, but how much is too much?

Nathan Bransford said...

adaora, you read my mind. I'm going to post on humor in queries... hopefully next week.

Julie Weathers said...

Well, I'm thoroughly depressed now. Just when you think you have something figured out someone turns on the light.

Marie said...

I agree, Nathan, that the passive voice should be avoided, especially in queries. As for the MS, I offer a small "however" as someone recently sold and not seeking representation :-))) If you make a list of all the "don't's"--never use passive voice, never use gerunds, never use adverbs, writers will drive themselves MAD trying to adhere to all the rules and may end up editing all the personality from their work. Sit down and WRITE. Do your best to avoid the don'ts, but don't make yourself crazy trying to make it perfect.

Love your blog! I read every day and this is the first comment I've made.

Adaora A. said...

Thanks Nathan, it is something I've been itching to ask for some time now.

A Paperback Writer said...

I learned what passive voice is by learning Spanish. I wasn't aware that German doesn't make much use of it, either.
Dave F.,
Nathan's right: it's not a tense; it's a voice.

Mark Terry,
"Was wearing" is past progressive tense. "Wore" is past tense." The English language loves progressive tenses almost as much as it does the passive voice. Progressive tenses suggest a continuum, whereas the past tense suggests finality or an "of the moment" sense. It's all about connotations of the choice.

Yes, passive voice removes one from the immediate drama of the scene. Consider the passive voice phrase "I was born in July." The active voice alternative is "My mother bore me in July," which just really brings up a much more graphic picture that most people wish to avoid. (Yes, we can use "gave birth to," but that uses a different verb.) Personally, I'm sticking with passive voice when it's appropriate; none of my characters will be saying that their mothers bore them on a certain date.
This is why learning grammar is really not such a bad thing, folks. When you know the rules, you can use or break them without worrying about making mistakes you don't understand.

Bija Andrew Wright said...

In addition to passive voice, I sometimes see troubles with passive constructions. A good sentence has the right subject and the right verb. A sentence with the wrong subject or the wrong verb can seem passive, even if it is grammatically in active voice.

When I was revising my book, I cringed every time I read a sentence with the subject "thing" and the verb "to be." It's my worst writing habit. "The first thing to remember is..." "One thing I noticed was..." "The most important thing is..."

Stephanie said...


Thank you so much for your blog. Lots of good info. Writers can fix passive voice if they just pay attention. Good reminder though.


Rose Green said...

Good point on how prolific the passive is in queries.

Uh, I do have to say that the passive is alive and kicking in German. It's especially used as a way around the sometimes unsure situation of whether to address someone with Sie or du. (See, even talking about it throws me all into passive.) Das ist ziemlich oft benutzt!

Chris Redding said...

Just remember not all "wases" are passive voice.
The sky was blue is not passive. Not a great sentence. Not even interesting, but not passive voice.
I also search for "had" to make my sentences more active.

Anonymous said...

Vengeance will be found HOW?

By looking down the back of the settee and finding it's next to the tv remote?

- Britbeat

Chris said...

Back when I was in university, we had to use passive voice for all our lab notes for the specific reason that it's not *who* does the experiment that's important but *what* happened.

On the plus side, I now find it quite easy to root out the passive stuff and concentrate on the active.

Teens with a Vision: Nourishing Kids in Poverty said...

Ahh!! My brain is being hurt by all the passive voice!

Still love your blog though.

Stella said...

YES!!! And thanks for the reminder.

Related Posts with Thumbnails