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Friday, December 31, 2010

"He knew..." = Bad Idea

Forgive my quick rant against bad writing.

I'm on vacation. I'm reading. So why is it half the books I've picked off my mother-in-law's shelf have this horrible passive voice?

What were writers thinking 20 years ago? No... wait... I lie... this was published in 2008. By a big name author. The little gold sticker proclaims that this book is a NYT bestseller.
head -> desk

POV break where the character has a narrator describing her followed by; "Character sulks through the sultry afternoon."

Excuse me? The back of the book (hereby formally known as The Place of Lies) sells this bestseller as "woven between the point of view of the men and women involved"

I think of POV as being in the character's head, seeing things from their perspective. Apparently not if you write in a passive voice.

After three pages I started flipping through books on the shelf at random. I really need to hit the library and my own bookshelf to collect some hard data, but I see an overwhelming amount of passive writing. When it isn't passive, it's telling.


A novel is not a screenplay. I don't want to be a passive observer in a book. I don't want to read a three paragraph description about the main character's clothes, from the POV of a fashion designer even though the rest of the book is from her POV. Okay, yes, that could work in some books, but not most.

The worst offender is "Character Knew..."

Every page has, "Character knew..."

"MC knew the ancient ceremony was full of quiet dignity."
-- How about a description of the ceremony?

"Antagonist knew the MC loved her little puppy."
-- The dog is never on stage. The MC never mentions the puppy. I don't believe Puppy even gets a name, but the Antagonist knows this? Because why? Because Author was too lazy to write the dog in and threw this phrase in as a last minute patch over a glaring plot hole?

"Victim knew the [alien race] were beautiful and wonderful and so much smarter than Victim could ever hope to be because Victim knew they were tall and agile and..."
-- Exaggeration, but if I keep reading I bet you a milkshake that I find a sentence that bad in this book.

Lesson Learned: I'm pulling out my manuscript and hunting the word "knew." The chances are good that I can delete 99% of occurrences and thus avoid writing a book that needs burning.

*takes a deep breath*

I'm good. I'm good. I just need to read a good book.


  1. Have you been reading my mind? I posted recently about a bad book experience, and the next one I got from the library was even worse! Admittedly the latter had huge promise in terms of action and sheer inventiveness, but the writing? Awful!

  2. I hate to make blanket statements, but I've noticed a trend in where these books come from and what genres they tend to be written in.

    I've also noticed that there was an era where passive was popular. The 1980's were rife with passive voice. Maybe it's like bad fashion and rolls around once every few decades?

  3. Ok, those are all problems in their own right, but... that's not Passive Voice. Maybe it's a passive character or maybe it's lackluster writing, but technically speaking, passive voice would be this:

    "Sulking took place throughout the afternoon."

    If it says, "So-and-so sulked..." that IS active voice.