While doing crits awhile back, I came upon one writer’s feedback (to another writer; it wasn’t me) to lose the was, were, is, are, has been/had been etc. in their writing. Her point was that using the ‘to be’ verb is passive writing.
I think I butted in their discussion to say that the use of said verbs doesn’t immediately mean it’s passive writing; instead, PASSIVE VOICE happens when the subject is being acted upon by the verb.
e.g. Miss Harriet was being wooed by the dashing Duke of Norfolk.
subject verb agent of the action
*Note: It is not necessary to have an agent of the action. If we remove it, the sentence remains passive: Miss Hariet was being wooed.
As opposed to ACTIVE VOICE, which is when the subject is acting or doing the verb:
e.g. The dashing Duke of Norfolk wooed Miss Harriet.
Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? So why do we have such a hard time with passive and active voice?
The aforementioned writer who banished the wases and weres down the pit of Tartarus did not concur with me, as evident by the prose she wrote that I had to read later on with an aspirin and a cup of water by my side. (She also despised had/had been.)She was so determined to root out all the was and were and had been that her prose became choppy and convoluted.
Now I would never tarnish any other writer’s name or their works, nor would I use somebody else’s work to make a point for my own use and without consent. So I had to make my own narrative here, with the purpose of showing how sticking to the rule book like a deer tick doesn’t benefit anyone, least of all a writer. (Actually, I don’t think there’s a rule that says you can never use ‘to be’ verbs. That would be criminally insane! Okay, exaggeration but you know what I mean.)
e.g. I looked out the window and saw him waiting for me. I planned to tell my mother, but I changed my mind at the last minute. She wouldn’t understand. I wrote her a letter when she knocked on my door.
Do you see what’s wrong here? Let’s try that again.
e.g. I looked out the window and saw him waiting for me. I had been planning to tell my mother, but I changed my mind at the last minute. She wouldn’t understand. I was writing her a letter when she knocked on my door.
>>Using had been in the sentence I had been planning to tell… does not make it passive because the subject I is doing the action had been planning to tell.
>>Again on next sentence I was writing her a letter…. This is a form of Past Continuous, by the way. To turn this into passive voice, we would have the object, in this case the letter, being acted upon by the subject I.
e.g. The letter was being written by me when she knocked on the door. [passive]
Sometimes, people confuse tense with passivity. I found a really handy chart where you can see the difference between Active and Passive Voice in different tenses.
Passive voice has its uses, so please do not flush it down the toilet. I can cite two, taken from one of the links I’ve given above:
1. When the actor in the situation is not important.
e.g. Twenty ml of acid was poured into the beaker.
2. When it is more important to draw attention to the thing or person acted upon.
e.g. The pedestrian was hit during rush hour.
If someone tells you to get rid of all the was and were and had been in your writing, don’t take it too literally. And don’t get too crazy. Writing is an art form (it’s why we have poetry) because it has other elements to make it beautiful, not just perfecting your basic grammar. There’s voice, beats, pacing, sophistication…and rules are really more like guidelines.
As always, aim for balance. Stay true to your voice, and have fun writing. =)