What’s All The Fuss About Passive Writing?

If you came here from Novel Rocket, scroll down for the tip!

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. That’s a subject for the future.) 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.

Tip

I found this invaluable when learning how to write in active voice. Microsoft Word has a setting you can activate within the program’s Preferences menu that shows readability statistics. One of the stats it shows is how passive your writing is.

In fact, you can check a single paragraph or a single sentence for passivity with this tool, make changes, then check again to see if your change helped. This helps you learn to identify passive voice.

To use this tool on a Mac, open the Word menu then click on Preferences (or press Command and the comma key). Then select Spelling and Grammar. The tool is also available on PC. Just play around in the menus until you find it or search for it.

Under Spelling, check whichever options you prefer. Under Grammar, also make your choices, but to use the passive identification tool, tick the “Show readability statistics” box.

Then after you run the Spellchecker a box will appear showing several interesting statistics, including the percentage of passivity. If your file has passive writing, to find it repeat the process paragraph by paragraph until the readability statistics box indicates you’ve found a passive section. Then, if necessary, repeat the process sentence by sentence.

Is it perfect? No, but it is a fantastic educational and self-editing tool.


Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line

Samba image from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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2 thoughts on “What’s All The Fuss About Passive Writing?

  1. Thanks for the clear definition! Many times I’ve had someone mark as passive a sentence where some form of “to be” was acting as a linking verb or a simple auxiliary. To eliminate linking verbs requires contortions of verbiage that are far worse than the original, imho. To draw an example from your example, the sentence “The samba was danced by Linda” is passive because the subject receives the action, but if we were to write “Linda was dancing” the subject is again active. We might say “Linda danced,” but the meaning is different. And if we said “Linda was graceful,” then Linda is again the subject of the sentence, and “was” links to her description. To suggest that the sentence would be improved by saying “Linda appeared graceful” (just to get rid of the “was”) is laughable.

    • I agree that “Linda was dancing” is not passive, but it is also not particularly engaging. If it’s not important that Linda danced a samba (grin), I think I’d go with something like: “Linda danced like a woman possessed” to offer more characterization. I prefer, for my voice, to eliminate the word was whenever possible. But I would never suggest eliminating it completely–sometimes it’s necessary.

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