Authors Answer 133 – The Passive Voice

The passive voice is something authors are often told not to use. But what exactly is the passive voice? Here’s a simple example.

Passive voice: The door was opened by John.

Active voice: John opened the door.

When you look at the two sentences, the active voice seems more dynamic. There’s actual movement. The passive voice is talking more about the door rather than John. In active, someone does something. For passive, something is done to something by someone or something. But is it something we should avoid using? Obviously, it shouldn’t be used when action is the focus of a scene. This week, we talk about the passive voice.

Question 133 – Do you find it difficult not to use passive voice? What advice would you give to writers who have this difficulty?

Elizabeth Rhodes

I do slip into it sometimes for reasons I can’t explain. I suppose for advice, I’d tell an author to write each sentence so that the action feels right in your face, as opposed to a distant event to witness. A tree was growing on the hill? Meh. A tree grew on the hill? Better.

H. Anthe Davis

Passive voice isn’t a 100% no-no; it has its uses here and there, mostly in formal conversation/dialogue.  I think the best way to handle it is just to study it, learn to recognize it in your writing, consider other options — and don’t press too hard if the passive way seems the only/best way to say what you want.  The English language is flexible.

Jean Davis

Over the years I’ve been trying hard to stomp out passive voice. I wouldn’t say it’s difficult not to use, but it can slip back in if you’re not watching for it. Always try to keep action and description in the present, making the character do things rather than things happening to or around them.

Paul B. Spence

Passive voice is sometimes needed. My advice is to try to not overuse it. All writers use it. Learn the true definition first, then worry if you do it too much. Sorry, the passive voice thing drives me nuts.

Eric Wood

I don’t really think about passive and active voices. Or at least not until I got this question. Now I will. I think I use an active voice. In my writing, I want to make the main character the focus of my sentences so I try to place them in the position of honor – as the subject of the sentence. For writers who have this difficulty I would tell them what I tell myself. As your story has a main character, so, too, do your sentences so keep your focus on keeping them the subject.

D. T. Nova

I don’t think I have a tendency to use it in situations where it should be avoided.

Gregory S. Close

When writing, using the passive voice is not a problem for me…

Crap!

Writing in the passive voice is less a problem than identifying later that you’ve written in the passive voice.  Sometimes, passive fits the need of the sentence.  Knowing when it doesn’t and editing it the heck out of there is the real trick.  Rules should never hinder writing.  Rules should polish it.

Tracey Lynn Tobin

I do find it difficult not to use passive voice, and am often accused of “telling” instead of “showing”. The best advice I can give for writers with this problem is simply to have good beta-readers. A good beta-reader will notice such things and be able to point them out so that you can correct them and (hopefully) be more likely to notice them in the future.

C E Aylett

I use passive voice but I don’t overuse it. I don’t believe it should be avoided, if it is what’s required at the time. Passive voice has its place in many instances and to create certain effects. Of course, it’s always worth questioning where you have used it so you can double check it makes more sense in passive rather than turning it into a more active sentence Coincidentally, I am currently composing a whole article on the subject of when it’s better to use passive voice  for my own blog (www.thestorysmith.com), which I plan to post Sunday 19th May.

Beth Aman

Sometimes!  I used to struggle with this a lot more, and then someone on Critique Circle pointed it to me, and I suddenly understood what I was doing wrong!  Advice to writers who need to work on this: do some research, get your work critiqued, and learn from there.

Jay Dee Archer

In the beginning, I found it difficult to avoid the passive. After teaching English for 11 years, I’ve become extremely conscious of the grammar I use while writing. I don’t have much of a problem with it anymore. But that doesn’t mean using the passive is bad. There are cases when it may be the only type of sentence that makes sense.

But to avoid the passive, you first need to recognise the passive for what it is. Once you do, you’ll notice it a lot more in your writing. While you’re writing, try to think about what the character is doing. If you write through the eyes of the character, even if it is third person, you’ll write in a more active way. Focus on the character’s movements, thoughts, and their senses. This should help a lot.

How about you?

Do you have problems using the passive voice when you should be using the active? What advice would you give? Let us know in the comments section below.

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5 thoughts on “Authors Answer 133 – The Passive Voice”

  1. Reblogged this on No Page Left Blank and commented:
    There are many rules that can be difficult to follow when writing, and one of the most commonly complained about is passive voice. The Authors and I discuss whether we personally struggle with this problem and what we do to avoid it today. ^_~

  2. Reblogged this on Paul B. Spence and commented:
    I realized I say very little when I feel very strongly. Sigh. Avoiding passive voice isn’t difficult. Cutting it out is impossible. Active sentences are not always right!

  3. I don’t have a problem with passive voice.

    Until recently, I used to edit quite a bit of academic writing (mostly anthropology/archaeology papers — go figure), in which passive voice is PREFERRED (by academics, not zombies 🙂 ), because it’s about the science, not the scientist. (Well, there was that one psycho instructor who honestly believed that a sentence such as “It is raining” is passive voice, and demanded that her students NEVER use any “to be” verbs, but she was an idjit. And also not even a good anthropologist.) I also know what passive voice IS, so I don’t have a conniption when I see a linking verb or something.

    “When writing, using the passive voice is not a problem for me…”

    That’s not passive, Greg. (I’m his editor; I can tell him that. 🙂 ) In the sample sentence, the subject (“using” — it’s a gerund, an -ing verb functioning as a noun) is not receiving the “action” of the verb (“is”). Therefor, it’s not passive voice. Anyone who tells you that all uses of “to be” verbs are passive is WRONG. And probably a parrot in disguise. Really, the only thing you need to identify is if the action is DONE TO the subject instead of the subject DOING the action.

    ‘Nother fun fact: passive voice has nothing to do with “telling” versus “showing.” A sentence such as, “He felt great sorrow,” doesn’t even contain the much-maligned “to be” verb, but it’s definitely telling rather than showing. On the other hand, “Her grave was visited every day by her brother, and every day flowers were left there,” IS passive voice… and more showing that telling. (Some people are so fanatical about “showing” that they’ll insist a writer somehow SHOW that the protagonist’s car is blue rather than tell that it’s blue… *rolls eyes*)

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