I thought I was a pretty good writer when I was in college. I probably was, at least as far as making my argument was concerned. But unfortunately, I didn’t learn until after I graduated that I was guilty of a common writing error: I overused passive writing because I thought it sounded “literary.”
Boy, was I wrong! Yet I had plenty of company, and I can even point to a couple of good reasons why it happened and why writers continue to overwrite using the passive voice.
Let me explain. In the active voice, the subject performs the action; in passive writing, the subject receives the action. It’s that simple. For example:
Active voice: Candace wrote a new blog about passive writing.
Passive voice: A new blog about passive writing was written by Candace.
In passive writing, the subject might even disappear from the sentence, like this:
A new blog about passive writing was written and posted.
In most cases, you want to emphasize the subject that does the action (active voice); in the passive voice, the subject receives the action. And because passive writing is often wordier than active writing, writers should always be looking for ways to craft a cleaner, more concise sentence.
While it is preferable to use an active voice most of the time, there is a time and place for passive writing. Daily Writing Tips puts it this way: “Passive writing is common in scientific papers because it lets the writers avoid using the words I or we, to avoid saying where their ideas came from That’s why some teachers think that passive voice sounds more educated. Usually, though, it’s simply less definite . . . but in the real world, when they have something to say, even scientists don’t have the luxury of not being definite.” And in A Writer’s Reference, author Diane Hacker writes,
“The passive voice is appropriate if you wish to emphasize the receiver of the action or to minimize the importance of the actor.”
Passive writing is tricky, though, and something you should work to avoid in most cases. Absolutewrite.com offers:
“It takes time and practice to eliminate such problems as expository dialogue and passive writing from your work. But the payoff for your hard work and diligence will be a smoother style and a heightened ability to create remarkable stories.”
That sounds like a goal worth pursuing! So don’t try to sound “literary” or “educated” by overusing the passive voice when you write. If your grammar checker flags a passive sentence, take a careful look to be sure you’ve written it that way for a good reason. If not, it’s time for a revision.
A final word: in the classic Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, author Patricia T. O’Connor writes, “If you have something to say, be direct about it. As in geometry, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.” That’s good advice for all of us, so the next time you self-edit, say it the way you mean it and work to construct your sentences so they are direct and active.
Next week: Avoiding Awkward Sentences