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 WritingOnTheFineLine.com 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.