Passive voice is a highly misunderstood subject for writers. We often hear to avoid it like the plague. Teachers in school marked us down each time we used it.
This causes many writers to shy away from it completely. Which in turn can make it hard to identify true passive voice.
But the passive voice exists, so it must serve a purpose.
Join me today in welcoming Whitney as she explains what the passive voice is and isn’t. She’ll also talk about when it can be used!
What Every Writer Needs to Know about Passive Voice
What Passive Voice IS
Often considered “weak writing,” the use of passive voice is one of the biggest red flags that a writer is new to their craft. Here’s how to identify passive voice and make it stronger.
Passive voice occurs when the subject of a sentence is not the subject performing the verb of the sentence. Instead, the verb is being done TO the subject. There is usually a conjugation of “to be” involved.
Examples of Passive Voice
Ex. The ball was thrown. (Passive voice)
In this case, the ball isn’t doing anything. Something is being done to the ball. The subject performing the action is omitted from the sentence entirely. Note, however, that even if we add the subject performing the action to the end of the sentence, it would still be passive voice.
Ex: The ball was thrown by the boy. (Still passive voice)
To make this active voice instead of passive voice, we need to put the subject performing the action in its proper place so it is the main subject of the sentence.
Ex: The boy threw the ball. (Active voice)
Active voice is the goal for writers because it is strong, keeps your character proactive instead of just reactive, and helps drive the story forward in a way passive voice just can’t.
Now, there are times where passive voice might be your best or only option. After all, what if you don’t want to draw attention to the person or thing performing the action, and you want the emphasis to be the object having the action done to it?
Ex: The door was pushed open. (Passive voice)
Maybe your MC doesn’t know who is on the other side of the door pushing it open, so it wouldn’t make sense for them to say “The killer pushed open the door.” It’s a valid point. But you could still reword the sentence to keep the person behind the door hidden while making the sentence active voice.
Ex: The door flew open. (Active voice)
The cause of the door flying open isn’t revealed yet, but see how there’s no “was ____ed” in the sentence anymore? We got rid of the passive voice and made the sentence stronger as a result.
When to Use Passive Voice
Now, there may be times you need or want to use passive voice. It isn’t evil; it’s just another tool in your toolbox that you need to know how to use correctly. But while I’m not saying you can never use the passive voice, I will say that in most cases, it is not going to be the right tool for the job.
What Passive Voice ISN’T
A common mistake writers make is to confuse passive voice with past progressive tense. Passive voice will look something like “was ______ed,” while past progressive tense will look something like “was _______ing.”
Past progressive tense is not weak writing. It is another very valid tool that has its uses—specifically, to convey ongoing action.
EX: I entered the parlor. John was singing. (Past Progressive Tense)
Some writers will flag “John was singing” as something that needs to be changed. They’ll say it should read “John sang” instead. But not every “was” needs changing. Look at the subtle that occurs if we change the tense from past progressive to just past.
EX: I entered the parlor. John sang. (Past Tense)
In the first example, the past progressive tense made it seem like the MC walked in on John who was already singing. The second example almost implies that John started singing as a result of the main character walking in. Changing the tense in this case changed the meaning and context of the story. If what you want to convey is that the action was already happening, use the past progressive, do it with purpose, and don’t let a well-meaning critique partner tell you to get rid of all your “was + verb” scenarios. Chances are, they don’t understand the different between passive voice and past progressive like you do. Just direct them to the blog post for some help.
Meet Whitney Hemsath
Whitney Hemsath has a B.A. in Screenwriting, three lively sons, and will do just about anything for a good back scratch. She writes everything from short stories to novels about aliens and classical music to religious non-fiction. Her favorite thing to write, however, is song parodies. On the weekends, she can be found neglecting laundry and dishes in favor of binge watching Netflix with her husband. You can learn more about her writing and publications at whitneyhemsath.wordpress.com.