Thursday, June 07, 2012

What's All The Fuss About Passive Writing?

Go to any writing conference or eavesdrop on any writer’s critique group (both great things for the practicing writer, by the way) and if you hang around long enough, the subject of passive writing will be discussed—and usually with the same conclusion: 

It’s bad. To-be-avoided-at-almost-any-cost bad. 

Well, you won’t get any argument from me that writing in passive voice is best avoided. But how do you avoid it if you’re not sure what it is? 

Active voice

In an active sentence, the subject performs the action.
  • Example 1: Linda dances the samba.
  • Example 2: Bill Withers sings Lean On Me.
In the first example, Linda is the subject and she is dancing the samba, the object of the sentence. In the second, soul singer Bill Withers is the subject and he is singing the song Lean On Me, the object.

Passive voice

Passive voice gets it backward, making the object of the sentence into the subject.
  • Example 1: The samba is danced by Linda.
  • Example 2: Lean On Me is sung by Bill Withers.
Here, the subject has become “the samba” (or the song Lean On Me) and the focus of the sentence has shifted from Linda to the dance (or from Bill Withers to the song).

Prefer the active

Most times, active voice is better. Why? Several reasons:
  1. Active voice sentences use fewer words. “Linda dances the samba” is four words. “The samba is danced by Linda” is six.
  2. Who wants to use weak words? Words like is/am/are/was/were/being/been, etc., are dull. Strong writing includes concrete nouns, powerful verbs, and vivid adjectives.
  3. No one likes confusion. Passive voice is often confusing or unclear.

 Is passive always bad?

You know how it is. Nothing in the English language is always—not even the long-revered serial comma. (Don’t get me started.) But it is good to remember that passive sentences aren’t incorrect. What is true, however, is that passive sentence construction is often not the best way to express your thoughts since it is vague, awkward, and wordy. For examples where passive voice is preferred, visit this page on Grammar Girl’s site.

Looking for a tip?

If you'd like a tip to help you recognize passive voice in your writing, visit my editing services blog, Writing On The Fine Line. You can train yourself to write in active voice.

Michael Ehret loves to play with words and as editor of the ACFW Journal, he is enjoying a new playground. He also plays with words as a freelance editor/writer at and as a contributor here on Novel Rocket. He has edited several nonfiction books, played with words as a corporate communicator, and reported for The Indianapolis Star.


Gina Holmes said...

Great post, Mike. This is a big recurring problem for up and comings. Glad you addressed it! I

Amy Sorrells said...

Super post, and one I never tire of learning and tweaking in my manuscripts. By the way, we must be neighbors, if you wrote for The Star. I wrote a column for the Zionsville Times Sentinel for about three years. Yay for Hoosier writers!

Ane Mulligan said...

Another passive I see a lot by newer writers is a to be verb with an "ing" ending on the verb. Seeing She was walking instead of she walked. UNLESS you're trying to create a passive mood to the sentence, characterizing this character.

But this is why we all need a good editor!!! And you, my friend, ROCK!

Gina Holmes said...

I like the "ing". Used carefully, it can help mix up sentence structure so it doesn't read flat. (which is of course a little different than what you're saying, Ane)

So we're not always saying "She walked the dog. He did the dishes." etc. It's nice sometimes to have: Walking the dog, she ... for variety.

All passive writing is not bad of course. Just usually. :)

Ane Mulligan said...

And I agree. I use that form to vary things, too. It's all a matter of balance. Like an artist, who uses dark base colors to cover a canvas prior to layering the lighter colors, we learn the guidelines first, then apply our own artistic voice to the prose. said...


Recognize your name, but not sure from where. I live in Colorado Springs now and haven't lived in Indianapolis since 1998. Though our daughter does work as a graphic designer at The Star now. We still have strong connections to Indiana.

And you make a good point that you never stop learning how to do a better job on the whole passive/active writing thing.

Also, you're ALL right about the "ing" issue. A few, used judiciously, can add a tasty flavor.


Nicole said...

Although I agree with the premise that passive voice can point out inexperience or a lack of knowledge concerning active/passive practices, I stop at saying active is better. I think you must consider genre and author's voice before you blackball it, but I agree a writer must know what they're using, doing.

I'm with Gina on the "ing" words.

Passive voice can be done well in memoir-ish fiction, present tense first person POV, or the current love-to-hate omniscient POV which if done well makes an interesting style, and in some literary novels.

Michael Ehret said...

Nicole, it can be done well. That is true. But, in my experience, it isn't done well very often. Yet, that's exactly why I said "Nothing in English is always."

For most writers, in most situations, active is preferred. And if you're going to write in passive, know what you're doing and why.