Active or Passive Voice?
Passive and Active Sheep
P eople may use the passive voice in their writing, or mix passive and active voices without knowing the difference. Should you use the active or passive voice in writing your history—and what is “voice” anyway?
“Voice” is the way verbs express action—either in the active or passive voice. Note the following examples:
I read the story. (Active voice)
The story was read. (Passive voice)
She told me to leave and never come back. (Active voice)
I was told to leave and never come back. (Passive voice)
The man chased Anna down the dark alley. (Active voice)
Anna was chased down the dark alley by the man. (Passive voice)
The passive voice subdues emotion and obscures the doer of the action. It’s used mostly in scientific and technical writing. The passive voice stresses WHAT is done while the active voice stresses the DOER of the action.
It’s best to use the active voice in your history writing, (and most writing), because it’s more vibrant, interesting, forceful, and alive. It’s less likely to put the reader to sleep and is more personal and human.
If there is a particular incident you’d like to subdue on purpose, there could be a use for the passive voice. For instance, maybe you’ve married into the family of a long-ago enemy and you want to soft pedal an incident to avoid offending family. Instead of using the active voice and writing this: “The guards lined the captives up against the wall and killed them.” You could use a less active verb and write in the passive voice: “The captives were lined up against the wall and shot.” Or simply, “The captives were shot.”
If you’re in doubt, stick to the active voice. It’s one more way to hang on to your reader, infuriated or not. J
Point of View
My Point of View (up close and personal)
T here are two best viewpoints for writing a family or personal history. You can write in the first person, “I,” viewpoint, or you can write in the third person, “he/she/John/Mary” viewpoint. Each has its challenges.
The first person point of view is personal and interesting. You tell the story according to how you think, hear, know, see, and feel. But that is also your limitation. You can’t step out of your own skin and into someone else’s without creating confusion. The temptation is also to get caught up in telling the story and forget to include description, action, and even dialogue.
In the third person perspective, you have broader control and have the advantage of changing your focus from one character to another, but this point of view is less personal and interesting. You are telling his and/or her story and may be tempted to switch into your own first person viewpoint. Don’t do it, it will confuse your reader.
It’s best to pick a viewpoint and stick with it.
Here are some examples of first and third person writing:
I spent the summer watching Dad build the extension on the living room. I always seemed to be in his way and got stepped on or clunked on the head many times before I learned. Dad asked me to bring him tools, and though I tried, I took him the wrong tools so many times that he nick-named me Second-Time Tilly. It was funny but I was determined to be a First-Time Tilly. Eventually I learned the correct names for all of his tools and felt quite proud of myself as a helper.
Mike built an extension on the living room of his house that summer. His little daughter always seemed to be under foot, and got hurt many times. He often asked her to bring him tools, but she brought him the wrong tools so many times that he nick-named her Second-Time Tilly. By the end of the summer he’d trained her to know all the names of the tools and to be quite a helper.
Decide what viewpoint will best help you tell your story, and either one, enjoy making it as interesting as you can.
His or Her Point of View