Tips on Writing: Quick Fixes for Passive Voice

In order to be a good writer, you must avoid passive voice whenever possible.

Yawn.  Lion_yawn_namibia_13413_h

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 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. (For the record, Lucile has her own, slightly perplexing Facebook page.)

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 its 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 neccessary 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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Photo by yaaaay, from Everystockphoto.

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6 Responses to Tips on Writing: Quick Fixes for Passive Voice

  1. J.D. Frost 12/29/2011 at 04:50 #

    I don’t disagree with any of this. What I find interesting is that when I am enjoying a book, I never consider the voice of the verbs or whether the Hemingway-hated adverbs are present or not. I don’t look at sentence structure or the quality of the adjectives that are used. When I read the best books, I’m looking at the page but the author is telling the story in my ear. It’s very difficult–at least it has been so far–to put all of this together and produce a result that sounds natural. I think the answer to that may be practice. But like in any thriller, the damn clock is ticking.

  2. Zan Marie 12/29/2011 at 06:25 #

    My rough drafts have passive-itis sometimes. ; ) These are good suggestions. Thanks for the reminder, Charlotte.

  3. Charlotte Dixon 12/29/2011 at 07:20 #

    J.D., I agree with you that when we’re reading, we don’t notice such things as overuse of adverbs (which I happen to like, in small doses) or passive voice. However, I believe if you were reading something that did have a lot of such stuff in it, you’d notice. Or you’d throw the book across the room but not be quite sure why. By the way, have you seen Midnight in Paris? I’m probably the last one in the world to have watched it, but what a cool movie! Loved seeing Hemingway and Faulkner and Fitzgerald in their 20s milieu. As for the clock ticking, you’ll beat it, I have faith in you.

    Zan Marie, rough drafts are great places for passive! Especially because you’ve noted it and can change it…

  4. J.D. Frost 12/29/2011 at 11:53 #

    No, I have not seen that movie. In some ways sprawling Paris is ordinary, but there is an electricity in the heart of the city where those guys hung out. If you want an education, go to London; if you want to contemplate man’s existence, go to Rome; but if you want to fall in love, go to Paris.

  5. Charlotte Dixon 12/29/2011 at 14:52 #

    J.D., I think you might enjoy Midnight in Paris, in it Owen Wilson is engaged to a typical spoiled California girl and they are visiting Paris before their wedding. But he discovers a portal to 20’s Paris and visits every night, complete with Gertrude Stein reading his novel. (He’s a Hollywood hack who longs to be a novelist.) Its pretty great. And yes, I love Paris and London, have not yet made it to Rome.

  6. Term paper Writing 02/10/2012 at 04:51 #

    I am very thankful too you for this sharing..It is very useful for my writing project I get enough information for my writing..

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