A few years ago I wrote a bank robbery scene in passive voice and the result was pretty funny. The robbers themselves completely vanished from the story–only the effects of their actions remained and honestly, I was laughing by the time I got to the end of the first and only paragraph.
I posted it online because I had gotten caught up in a (deeply stupid) argument about the subject. What exactly is passive voice, and is it always terrible?
To answer the second question first, no, of course it’s not always terrible. There are times when passive voice is exactly what a sentence needs. The whole point of studying writing as an art form is to recognize that words and sentence structures are tools that we can put to use. So, there’s nothing inherently bad about passive voice. It just has to be used correctly.
As for what passive voice is, the question gives me flashbacks to the person who argued “Blood pooled on the floor” was in passive voice because blood is an inanimate object and how could it therefore be doing the action? The active force was gravity, which might have been absent from the sentence but was the active force causing the blood to pool. Therefore: passive.
Which… sure. But we’re talking about literary structures here, and that argument misses the point.
Another sentence that’s not passive? “He was tall.”
Which brings me to Prosecraft, (link deliberately excluded) a service offered by a company using an AI called Shaxpir (a joke name that I didn’t get until I said it aloud.) Supposedly, you submit your work of fiction to them and they use Shaxpir to run a linguistic sentiment analysis to compare it with other previously published works in their database.
There’s one work by me in there. The Twisted Path.
Some authors are contacting the guy behind it all with angry demands to pull their works from his site as though this was another free pirate library. I’m not sure it is, though. If he’s bought these works legally, then run them through his dumb (more on that later) algorithm to analyze and compare them, I’m not sure that’s a copyright violation. If he’d been doing the same analysis and comparison with a notebook and sharp pencil, I doubt anyone would complain.
Others are unhappy by the idea that he’s using their works to “train” his AI, Shaxpir. But when I look at the site, Shaxpir seems to be another a word processor with some publishing and analytical bullshit thrown in. It doesn’t appear to be one of those enter a prompt and the AI will vomit a novel manuscript for you places. It looks a bit like Scrivener.
Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m not going to look any deeper into it, considering the quality of the analysis it does.
Judging by the Prosecraft page about my own work, I see problems with the service. First, listing adverbs–broken out into adverbs with an -ly at the end and those without–as a percentage of the total word count, then ranking the book in a “percentile” with other books in the database tells you nothing about the quality of the book. Adverbs are not a metric for quality. They’re a tool, and the only measure that really matters is whether the tool is used correctly.
Second, the service breaks down the text into “vivid” and “passive” words, then using the aforementioned sentiment analysis determines where your book is more of one of those things than the other. There’s even a little color coding for the text: the words the system codes as vivid are red, and the deeper the color the more vivid they’re supposed to be. Passive is the same but blue.
And state of being verbs are all rendered in the most intense blue.
Maybe the creator of prosecraft was a little careless with the way he labeled things. Maybe he liked the word vivid because he thought Vivid books are good books, and so he wanted to put something with a negative connotation at the other end of that scale. Therefore: passive. Passive is bad, right?
Except, in his blog post on the software, he posts an analysis of some text from one of his favorite authors, says it rates in the 99th percentile for Passive, then talks about how much he likes the guy’s writing, esp his use of “passive-voice constructions.”
No surprise then that, out of all that blue text indicating passive voice, only one of those sentences is actually in passive voice. The rest just use state-of-being verbs, which are not themselves passive voice, although there’s an argument to be made that they are not particularly vivid.
But you know what state of being verbs are? They’re really easy to identify.
So it’s a mess, really. The Passive label is being stuck on words/sequences that are not in the passive voice, and passive is used as a binary opposite to the Vivid label, which it absolutely is not.
If the books are being shared like a library, that’s bad and it shouldn’t happen. If they’re being entered into an AI so the algorithm can pull them apart and regurgitate them as works of fiction, that’s also bad and shouldn’t happen.
But as I see it, the main problem is that the service Prosecraft offers is a mess and is basically useless.
Edit: He took the website down. I knew I should have just been lazy and ignored all this. Now I’ve blogged about nothing.