Passive Voice


Passive voice bedevils writers. It’s an equal opportunity villain, striking the pens of novice and professional writers alike. First, there are real misconceptions about what it is and isn’t. Even Strunk and White famously got it wrong three out of four times in their widely accepted tome, The Elements of Style. The real problem for writers is if you don’t understand what it is and isn’t, you’ll never recognize it in your own writing.

First misconception: if you see a “to be” verb then you have passive structure. In grad school, a student writer mistook every instance of was in another student’s work as an example of passive voice. The use of weaker to be verbs is certainly not preferable, and it weakens your prose, but it does not make your sentence by definition passive.

To be passive the object of an action must become the subject of the sentence.

Suppose Stephen King is having a book signing. Which of these is active and which is passive?

Stephen King is signing books at 5:00 today.

Books are being signed by Stephen King at 5:00 today.

Silly and an easy example to pick out. The first is active. Stephen King is the subject. The books are the object. Note that an active sentence is nearly always shorter. This allows for cleaner and much clearer prose.

Passive voice isn’t a grammar issue. It’s a sylistic choice. There are instances (rare in today’s writing) where it has its place. However, if you’re writing a thriller, a mystery, a paranormal, and the list goes on, how long will a reader hold on sludging through passive voice? Not long.

Given this knowledge, when you are rewriting (I consider this a revision item for new writers, veterans are more likely to do it without thinking during the drafting process) one of the first choices you need to look at is passive structure and passive voice. Is your prose as active as it can be?

An interesting note, my writing buddies have all noted the difficulty of not correcting things like passive structure as we write for NaNo this month. But on a deadline, we just plug away worrying about word count not the usual things. Of course, we’re also counting the days till we can go back to these manuscripts and “fix” all those things. 🙂

What are your feelings about passive voice?

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