Writing Tip: Don’t be passive!

Posted by: Bridgett.

Being passive in life can lead to a huge set of problems. Others may walk all over you, important decisions may never be made, your preferences get ignored, and worse.

Passive sentence structure, too, comes at a cost.

Whether you are writing a novel, memoir, how-to article, college essay, or business letter, writing instructors recommend avoiding the use of passive voice in sentence structure.

What is passive voice, and how can we avoid it?

Passive voice dilutes the power and impact of any form of writing. It occurs in a sentence when:

The grammatical subject of the verb is the recipient (not the source) of the action denoted by the verb.

passive voice. Dictionary.com. WordNet® 3.0. Princeton University. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/passivevoice 

Say what?

Let’s look at the example from our comic strip.

The ball was spun by Rebecca.

The ball is the subject of the sentence. However, the ball is not doing the action (verb) of the sentence. The action (spinning) is being done to the ball.

If this were a scene in a novel, the reader would assume he is viewing the action from the point of view of the ball. This would be the perfect way to form the sentence if you were, in fact, writing a story from the ball’s perspective. (Which, actually, could be quite entertaining.) However, if the “main character” of this sentence is Rebecca, it is best to make sure she is the one doing the action. In fiction, it is imperative to ground the reader in the right character’s head.

How do we fix it?

We transform the sentence into active voice, with the person or thing perfuming the action listed first, then the action, then the person or thing upon which the action is being performed.

Subject + verb + object.

Rebecca + spun + the ball.

Which is more powerful?

Olivia’s jeans were torn open by the dog, the skin of her leg ripped by its sharp teeth.

—or—

The dog tore open Olivia’s jeans, its sharp teeth ripping the skin of her leg.

Okay, but how can this principle apply to nonfiction or business writing?

Most instructors in resume writing seminars and other business communication workshops emphasize the importance of using precise action verbs to describe your competencies and skills. Employers are looking for people who take initiative and an active role in their workplaces. Passive voice sends the opposite message. Compare:

I was trained in CPR and first aid techniques.

—or—

I completed courses in CPR and first aid.

—better still—

I hold credentials in CPR and first aid.

Is the use of passive voice ever acceptable?

Of course. Just like any “rule” of writing, there are exceptions. Most notable among these is dialogue. If a character’s lines will sound more authentic to his personality when delivered in passive voice, go for it.

Also, you may wish to conceal the identity of the person or thing performing the action. For example, the character in whose viewpoint the scene is written may not see or know who is causing this thing to occur.

Pictures were flung from the walls, vases were hurled across the room, and Sam’s head was nearly bashed in by a flying paperweight.

This can work if the subject (who or what is performing the action) is actually a ghost or unseen magician. But even in this case, active voice may be more powerful.

Pictures flung themselves from the walls, vases leapt from tables to collide midair, and a paperweight flew past Sam’s head, inches from bashing in his skull.

The most important point: take an active role in constructing your sentences, so the power of your words will shine!

Your turn to Shed Your Light below…

Was this tip helpful? On which areas of grammar or the writing craft would you like to see tips?

About the author:

Bridgett's promo2Bridgett Powers has defied the limitations of impaired vision and overcome a 21-year battle against chronic pain, all of which taught her a profound truth. God shines brightest through cracked lanterns.

Now, she shares that truth through her fantasy novels, picture book, and short stories. A member of ACFW and MyBookTherapy, she also serves as co-leader and writing coach for her writer’s group, operates a proofreading and editing service, and teaches writing workshops.

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About Bridgett

fantasy novelist ~ picture book and short story author ~ freelance editor ~ writing coach

One thought on “Writing Tip: Don’t be passive!

  1. This site’s (Home Business: Tips On Managing Your Business From Home) article “How To Do Stuff” linked to this post.

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