Passive Writing - Should You Use it? Part 1

A lot of writers I’ve edited have used passive sentence structures in their writing. It’s so commonplace that, from an editor’s point of view, it’s interesting to understand why most writers construct their sentences in such a way. This form of storytelling seems to come easily to them, rather than active storytelling, and probably has a lot to do with how we generally speak in everyday situations.  For instance, when we tell someone about something that has happened, we tend to recall the incident passively, and so this habit spills into writing.

Another consideration is that many literary classics were written passively, because people spoke very differently hundreds of years ago, and passive sentence structures were perfectly normal, but writing styles change, and what was popular 150 years ago isn’t very popular with modern tastes, and yet there seems to be an unconscious habit that writers rely on passive storytelling.  

That’s not to say that passive writing isn’t entirely ungrammatical, because there are instances when the story needs passive writing, but on the whole, it’s considered clunky and creates distance between the reader and the story. It can stifle immediacy and make it difficult for the reader to feel that closeness or be engaged and involved with the story, but you need them to be involved, and you need them to connect with your characters, so the advice to writers now is to try to use active sentence constructions wherever possible. It’s a great way of creating that all-important immediacy and it allows the reader to connect with the characters and story.

Passive voice also forces writers to use the word ‘was’ more than is necessary. Of course the narrative needs to use ‘was / there was’ and ‘were,’ etc., but these words often render the narrative as ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’, because of the construction of the sentences, which is why the advice is to avoid passive sentences and use active ones instead, for instance, “The ball was kicked by Jane.”

The use of ‘was’ forces the construction to be passive. That’s because the object has an action done to it by someone or something. In the example above, the object is the ball. The verb ‘kicked’ is the action and the subject is Jane.

Sentence construction: Object (the ball) + (kicked) + (Jane) = Passive

In active sentences, something that is doing the action is the subject of the sentence. The thing receiving the action is the object. The sentence order in the above example needs to change so that the subject, Jane, kicks (verb) the ball (object): “Jane kicked the ball”.

Sentence construction: Subject (Jane) + Verb (Kicked) + Object (Ball) = Active.

Now imagine you wanted an action scene in your story. All the passive sentences would create the opposite effect, for example:

Snarling, the dog ran towards them. The food was dropped as they became startled and then ran in all directions. The dog bit one person and his coat was ripped, then it ran for the others, but the injured man was seen to by Jane. One young girl was trampled by the dog before it ran away...

There is no pace, no real sense of action or anything else in this example, simply because the construction is passive and doesn’t allow the writer to describe anything.

If it was actively written, the sentence structure will be different:

The dog snarled and ran towards them. Startled, the grouped dropped their food and scattered in all directions, but the dog bit one person and ripped his coat open, then it ran for the others. Jane quickly saw to the injured man, while the dog trampled a young girl before it ran away...

The active voice has a strong subject – verb – object construction, which prevents passive writing, but also negates the use of ‘was’.

In part 2, we’ll look at more examples of passive writing, and reasons why writers should aim to write actively.

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