In order to be a good writer, you must avoid passive voice whenever possible.
This topic has all the excitement of a rainy day in January.
But, the thing is, it’s true. Passive voice can sink a sentence faster than the Titanic. Okay, okay, I’ll quit with the metaphors that are as dumb as a rock. Sorry, I’ll stop now. Really. Back to passive voice.
Because, if your writing is laden with passive sentences and phrases it will be boring. Dull. Flat. Lifeless. And you don’t want that, now, do you?
Many, many, many, many, many years ago I wanted to apply to journalism school at the University of Oregon (Go, Ducks!) and in order to do that one had to take an infamous class called J250. It was infamous because it was hard, purposely so, in order to weed out those who might not be completely, totally, one hundred per cent devoted to the journalistic ideal. One of the best things I got from that class was a book called The Lively Art of Writing by Lucile Vaughan Payne. Lucile absolutely rails on passive voice, and ever since reading her chapter on it, I’ve been a demon about it, too.
Here’s Lucile on passive voice:
The English language has two voices — active voice and passive voice. These terms refer to the use of verbs. Most verbs can be active or passive, depending upon how you use them. Active voice is direct, vigorous, strong; passive voice is indirect, limp, weak — and sneaky. It can creep unnoticed into your writing unless you are on guard against it constantly and consciously.
As Lucile goes on to point out, the difference between passive and active is essentially the difference between your subject acting, and the subject having something done to it. So,
Active: Peter mowed the lawn.
Passive: The lawn was mowed by Peter.
Passive voice tends to creep into business and technical and other official type language, but it can easily appear in your writing, too. So here is my handy-dandy quick guide to ditching it:
1. Make the subject perform, rather than have something performed upon him. That sounds vaguely kinky, but it is an important point. If you fear you’ve constructed a passive sentence, ask yourself if the subject of said sentence is doing something, or having something done to him.
2. Choose strong and interesting verbs. As you can see in the above example, passive voice often arises when you use variants of the verb to be. As in, Mary was at the store. Or, Tom was reading a book. When you force yourself to work a bit harder and push for stronger verbs you just about always sidestep passive voice. So, Mary trudged to the store. Or, Tom devoured a book. It is impossible to eradicate all forms of the to be verb, but do your best to minimize how much you use it.
3. Avoid the gerund verb form. This is, of course, the “ing” usage of a verb. I could not find any good explanation of the “ing” form which wasn’t hopelessly complicated. The way I think of it is that it tends to denote action occurring over time, such as, I was eating the cake. This is less direct and snappy than I ate the cake.
(Note to purists: yes, I know that sometimes gerunds are not gerunds but past participles or some damn thing, but trying to figure out the nuances of all that is about to make my head explode and the point here is to provide quick, let me repeat, quick fixes for passive voice.)
If you keep those three tips in mind as you write, you’ll conquer passive voice. But, I hear you ask, is there ever a time when passive voice is appropriate? Why, yes. Once in a great while you may want to use it for an artful reason, such as to denote that the character about whom you are writing is a passive type. Or, as our friend Lucile says, “Sometimes only passive voice can provide a necessary tone or connotation. It is possible for a verb to be too brisk, too energetic, to express accurately an exact shade of meaning.”
So there you have it, writing tips for the scourge of passive voice. Now, tell me. Do you struggle with passive writing? Or is it something you’ve learned to master?
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