Passive Writing - Should You Use it? Part 2

It’s widely accepted that passive writing can look awkward and can weaken the writing considerably, and sometimes it just doesn’t look right. That said, it’s important to tell writers that not every sentence you write will be active. There will be times when you simply can’t avoid the passive voice, or a passive sentence is a deliberate choice to create an effect, for instance:


The park had been full of people.

John was hit by the metal, and he fell.


These examples are not grammatically incorrect, but because passive writing creates a distance between the narrative and the reader, some writers choose to do that to create that effect. They may want the reader to feel a different emotion or sentiment, maybe see a character in a different light, or establish a tone or mood, for example:


The time was something he ignored…


There may be an instance where you want to make more of an impact when you end a scene, so a passive sentence can be preferable, for example:


John was stabbed.


This is better than the active version: “Someone stabbed John.” There is no punchy impact that would draw the reader. So, in this instance, passive use is a better option.


Also, dialogue is often passive because characters are recalling things that have happened and might say something like, “I checked; the note was left by John.”  This is very normal in everyday conversation. The character could also talk in the active voice, for instance: “I checked; John left the note.”  Either is perfectly acceptable.


It’s about knowing when to use passive sentences and when to avoid them that give the narrative the right effect. It’s not about eradicating use of passive voice, but more about how to limit its use so that you can make your writing more effective and the sentence structures stronger.


Overall, passive writing is something to avoid unless it is used to create an effect. Readers like active fiction, they want to be right in the moment, and passive sentences don’t allow much immediacy – it creates distance instead. Also, passive sentences are not as tight or pacey, which are more desirable.


Is passive writing ungrammatical? The truth is, no, it isn’t – even though it looks and sounds clunky at times – but that’s because it’s more about writing style than the functionality of grammar, and the kind of effect you want to create.

Just remember that passive voice generates a sentence in which the subject receives an action, whereas active voice produces a sentence in which the subject performs an action.

If you keep an eye on the use of ‘was’ and ‘were’ when writing, and use less of them, then you will create more active voice.

The general advice is to ensure you understand when to use passive voice and when to keep the active voice; it makes all the difference.


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