When and how to avoid passive voice
Writing is a subjective art. Some people love reading first-person, and others love reading an objective perspective. Some readers hate authors after discovering a tragic ending, while others love the twist and realism it provides. A controversial topic that many writers still struggle with, including me, includes the use or avoidance of passive voice. I’ve written an article about the “was” “were” rules in writing, but I’m going to delve into the topic a little more and discuss what it means to write with passive voice, as well as when it should be avoided and how.
What’s the difference?
Passive voice doesn’t necessarily demand attention like active voice does. Your typical reader won’t exactly slam a book down and fold their arms across their chest and say, “Amateur writer! Wasted my money on this thing.” So, why is it a big deal? Like I said, active voice demands attention and it strengthens a sentence, so when you do use passive voice, the reason for it is more clear and the message comes across properly.
I was walking to the store.
The dog was chased by me.
I had to hope the moon wasn’t full tonight.
I had been wondering about his past.
I walked to the store.
I chased the dog.
I hoped the moon wasn’t full tonight.
I had wondered about his past.
Passive verbs are typically “to be” verbs, but the main problem lies in the sentences where the subject of the sentence becomes the object. The first sentence is a “to be” sentence. The second is an example of a “to be” verb that allows a subject to become the object. Basically, the thing doing something becomes the thing to which something is done.
How can we stop it?
“Was” and “were” aren’t the only “to be” verbs. If you follow the link I provided above, you’ll learn a little about past participle/past progressive, and it will show you more about “has been” and “will be going” and others that fall under the “to be” category. You’ll never be able to eradicate passive voice, which is fine. It’s not always a bad thing. Like anything else, it has a purpose. The problem, however, is seeing it constantly:
I was walking to grandma’s, ready to taste the gingerbread she would have pulled out of the oven by now. The rocks were kicked by my foot, which still hurt a little after dropping my book on it. I was looking at the ground, counting every rock I kicked, when I heard my name in the distance and the familiar smell of ginger and butter wafted into my nose.
Almost every sentence is passive. Most might easily point out every passive verb in there. Now, let’s fix it a bit:
I was walking to grandma’s, ready to taste the gingerbread she should have pulled out of the oven by now. I kicked rocks so they rolled in front of me, though my foot still hurt from this morning. I counted every rock I kicked to pass the time, staring at the ground, but then I heard my name in the distance as the familiar smell of ginger and butter wafted into my nose.
I could write this paragraph in many different ways. This is far from a prize-winning scene, but it’s simply being used as an example. If you’ll notice, I didn’t change the first sentence; however, the paragraph itself is a bit better and changing the sentences allowed me to add a little more information or take away unnecessary information where it didn’t work well in its passive form. So, why didn’t I change that first sentence?
When to use “passive voice”
Passive voice, like I said, is not to be avoided at all costs. It’s not improper grammar, and it’s not a dead form of writing. It’s a style and every style should be used with purpose. In most forms, passive voice is a form of progressive writing. “Is going,” “was going,” “had been going” are all forms of progression, which means something is happening. You could say, “I walked to grandma’s, ready to taste the gingerbread . . .” and you could continue in the present moment that way. That’s not wrong. You could also use the passive form because it is progressive. You’re doing that action in that moment. You’re still doing it. This is a judgment call on the writer’s part. If you want to use active voice, do it. Practice. Write it both ways, read it both ways, but don’t stare at it for eight hours before deciding whether to remove the was and change the gerund.
Don’t take my explanations as reasons to use passive voice.
Don’t use passive voice in excess because, as I showed you above, it weakens a sentence. Passive voice can be a characteristic and it can weaken a character. If you have a character who is weak-minded or insecure, this might be a developing tactic, but watch out. Passive voice is draining to read when it’s there all the time. Choose wisely and change up your verb style. Don’t depend on how you use a verb to develop your characters. That’s not their main function. It’s a side effect.
I also won’t suggest allowing your subject to be the object. If you’ve ever taken a photo with purpose, think about the angle. Would you take a photo of a small child during a photo shoot by standing above them? I hope not. Not without a specific pose occurring, anyway. (There are exceptions, but this isn’t a photography lesson.) This angle makes the child look insignificant and small because this is the angle at which they’re always seen. Get on their level or even look up. Make them look proud, young, and resilient. Making your subject the object is doing the same thing. The action they’re doing is, in a way, still happening to them. They aren’t exactly doing the action. Give them the stage and let them do something. They are the center of attention in that sentence. If they are doing the action, don’t take it away from them. Some of you might think this will prevent you from creating variety in your sentences, but there are multiple ways to accomplish that. Don’t make this a path to sentence variety. It’s not a good path.
The tricky truth about passive voice
Yes, there’s a trick. Not every “to be” verb means something is passive. In my first list of sentences, you’ll notice “…the moon wasn’t full tonight.” This isn’t passive. This is the moon in a state of being. Its action is a form of existence. “To be” is a verb, but it’s not always a passive verb.
This is the same for “has,” “have,” and “had.” If you have something or if you have to do something, the sentence including “have” makes the action a necessity. It provides urgency. But, if you have wondered what someone’s feet looked like and it’s a current action, “have” is probably being used passively.
The best way to figure this out is to look for the main noun in your sentence. Who or what is the subject? Are they at the front of the sentence? Are they doing the action? Or is the action occurring “to” them? When you’re writing with past progressive, are they walking or doing something in that moment or did they do it already?
Another hard-to-find form of passive voice is when the object isn’t in the sentence. “I was hit.” You’re the object, aren’t you? So, this is active voice isn’t it? No. Something hit you. You didn’t do the hitting. The action is being done to you, so there’s an object somewhere that did it. “Chester hit me.” There.
Don’t let the idea get you down. Overcoming passive voice is something you need to practice to perfect, and even then, you’ll miss things. Don’t try to remove them completely. It’s okay to act passively, but choose wisely. Read objectively and look at how other accomplished writers used passive voice. Read more articles on it, but don’t seek a way to drown it in a sea of words. It’s okay. Passive voice is your friend, just don’t make it your lifelong soulmate.