Avoid Passive Voice

Why was the road crossed by the chicken?

When a sentence starts with the thing being acted upon rather than the thing doing the acting, that sentence is in “passive voice.” For example, if you ask me where the hat is that you lent me, and I reply, “It got lost,” I have used the passive voice. A more honest and direct answer, using the active voice, would have been “I lost it.”

Active voice lends credibility.

In fact, passive voice is often used in order to avoid responsibility. “Mistakes were made” does not inspire trust and forgiveness the way “Our president made mistakes” can, especially if it’s followed up with specifics.

Active voice keeps readers interested.

In fiction, active voice helps keep the writing interesting and the reader engaged. “The front door was smashed by the speeding car” doesn’t grab the reader the way “The speeding car smashed in the front door.”

Sometimes passive voice is better.

A character’s personality comes through in his dialogue. Passive voice might show him to be a coward, a beaurocrat, or a hero-to-be who is about to grow in ways no one imagined.

Passive voice is also appropriate when you want to emphasize the thing being done, rather than the person doing it. “The tumor was completely destroyed by the radiation” is a fine way to give a patient the good news. On the other hand, if you were speaking at a conference for inventors of medical technology, you might want to stress the new treatment: “The radiation destroyed all traces of the tumor.”

As with the other writing principles you learn, avoiding passive voice is a generally good idea, but it’s not a rule. If anyone tells you otherwise, sent them to me. I’ll set ‘em straight.

2 thoughts on “Avoid Passive Voice

  1. I am recovering from an editorial critique that’s left me feeling like I’m a moron with no writing ability. I’ve written an article on various historic accounts and wrote it in the passive voice. I knew that when I wrote it. My editor has very bluntly pointed out that fact in a very harsh tone asking if I’d ever read the Chicago Style Manual. His comments left me feeling that I’m a total illiterate. You’ve given me new hope that maybe, just maybe, I can be forgiven for my use of the passive voice. Is using the active voice when discussing historic events a hard fast rule? I find that using the passive voice is better in some cases and actually adds more life and interest to the article. My editor added so many “criticisms” in the margins of my work that I am quite in despair of even correcting my work. Do you think it is time to look for another editor or should I suck it up, rewrite the entire article in active voice and make my editor happy (and kill my creative voice)?

  2. Hi, Wendy,

    Sorry I’m so late getting back to you. I’ve been moving (for three months?!) and missed your comment.

    My quick answer is that if your editor makes you feel like crap, you should have a different one. See this post for more on that: http://writerseditingworkshop.com/2009/04/on-the-tolerance-of-writers/

    For the record, nobody but an editor would be able to stand reading much of the Chicago Manual. I find the stuff fascinating, but even I haven’t read all 900 pages. It’s a reference book!

    If you’d like to email me some examples, I’d be happy to look at your passive voice and give you some feedback.

    Meanwhile, don’t lose heart, and keep writing! :)

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