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.


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

Choose the Right Words

Last Thursday, we began looking at ways to be more clear in your writing by eliminating redundancies and overwriting, and choosing simple words when appropriate.

Today, let’s look at how the right word also helps your reader grasp your meaning.

Alive or dead?

Perfect words are the difference between writing that leaps off the page and writing that just lays lies there, waiting for resuscitation. Words that show are more powerful than words that tell. (Thanks to Terrie Todd!)

Many times using words that evoke our senses (taste, sight, hearing, touch, smell) adds much-needed pizzazz to your writing and engages readers. In the July issue of ACFW Journal, award-winning author Deborah Raney offers great advice on how to make your readers’ senses come alive in your writing.

As important as sensory involvement is, there is more to choosing the perfect word. Or, as Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Sometimes the right word will fall naturally into your manuscript—particularly if you’re an avid reader. Writers who read a lot (note: the word alot does not exist and is therefore never correct) have a greater storehouse of words to draw from.

But more often than not, writers have to search for the perfect word. Here is great information from the website, On Blogging Well, that provides six ways to do that.

Beware the sound-a-likes

One last thing. Watch out for homophones. Homophones are two or more words that have the same pronunciation but different meanings, origins, or spellings.

As writing becomes increasingly informal what used to be common knowledge is not so common anymore. Your and You’re, as well as there, their and they’re, and even to, too and two, are frequently used incorrectly.

So, if those common homophones are confused, be sure to look out for:

  • air/heir
  • aisle/isle
  • brake/break
  • cereal/serial
  • complement/compliment
  • flour/flower
  • hear/here
  • made/maid
  • morning/mourning
  • peace/piece
  • pray/prey
  • principal/principle
  • sew/so/sow
  • stationary/stationery
  • and the like.

If these confuse you, bookmark this page.

Do you have tips for enhancing clarity? Share them!

Next Thursday: Get your writing up and moving!

Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line

Images: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Make Your Message Clear

If you’re writing an article for a magazine or a novel your end goal is to have what you wrote read and understood. Why is it, then, that when you have a friend or critique group member read a piece they sometimes don’t get it? Are they just thick?

Could be you have an issue with clarity. Maybe you’re overwriting. Maybe you’re using too many million dollar words and not enough “buck and change” words. Regardless, if your reader doesn’t understand what you’re writing, he certainly won’t get any of the deeper meaning you’re shooting for.

Are your words too big?

Impress the reader with your ideas, not with the size of your words. When you have a choice, use the common word over the extraordinary. Avoid showing off your vocabulary.

Caveat: In fiction, characterization may trump this advice. If your protagonist is a professor, her vocabulary will be different than if she’s a high-school dropout.

Tip: Avoid using verbs as nouns. Rather than Seth provided an explanation for why he lied try Seth explained his lie. That’s four fewer words.

Speaking of fewer words

Be religious about cutting the fat. Scour your writing for throat clearing tactics such as:

  • Introductory phrases: “The point I’m trying to make is…” Just state the point.
  • Redundancies:
    1. “Josh estimated that they’d arrive in Minneapolis by roughly 4:00 p.m. in the afternoon.” (14 words)
    2. “Josh estimated they’d arrive in Minneapolis by 4:00 p.m.” (9 words)

Use estimated or roughly, but not both. Use 4 p.m. and not in the afternoon because 4 p.m. is more specific and is clearly in the afternoon.

  • Wordiness:
    1. “Sarah knew that at her place of employment Jason was knee-deep in advance planning for the next year’s fundraising campaign.” (20 words)
    2. “Sarah knew her co-worker Jason was knee-deep in planning next year’s fundraiser.” (12 words)

Identifying Jason as her co-worker rather than writing at her place of employment saves words and is clearer. And, isn’t all planning advance planning? You can’t plan after the fact, right?

Clarity is critical, both to keep your reader’s interest and to give your message a greater chance of getting through. When self-editing, look at the size of your words and the amount of words you use. Your readers will thank you.

Michael Ehret, for Writing On The Fine Line

Next Thursday: Not only smaller and fewer words, but better word choices enhance clarity.

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net