Stop worrying about active or passive voice

This post is about “active voice” and “passive voice” in writing. I will show you why you should not worry about them. The truth is that while the active and passive voice can both be worth knowing about, they are nothing worth worrying about.

Most of the time, when we talk about voice in writing, we are talking about your style and expression of the story. However, in this case, we are talking about verbs and their two voices. It is the difference between “the person does the thing” (active) and “the thing is done by the person” (passive).

Passive Voice:

From (The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition)

A verb is in the passive voice when the subject of the sentence is acted on by the verb. For example, in “The ball was thrown by the pitcher,” the ball (the subject) receives the action of the verb, and was thrown is in the passive voice. The same sentence cast in the active voice would be, “The pitcher threw the ball.”

Passive voice is often considered “bad” because it makes writing less interesting to read. However, I have read many technical and philosophical texts that are passive voice heavy and still gripping. That is because general rules of thumb on how to write well are trumped by actually writing well. For every rule there are exceptions.

Active Voice:

From (The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition)

When the verb of a sentence is in the active voice, the subject is doing the acting, as in the sentence “Kevin hit the ball.” Kevin (the subject of the sentence) acts in relation to the ball.

Active voice is generally considered the “better” voice to use because it “feels” more immediate. The chances are that if you are writing action, you will find it only “works” in the active voice. You don’t need to know that it is active voice, you only need to know that the text felt wrong one way and felt right the other.

How to stop worrying about active and passive voice.

Passive voice is not “wrong”.

One of the pervasive myths of writing is that the passive voice is a grammatical error. This is just not true.

The passive voice is a completely legitimate way to write. Sometimes it can be the best way to describe an idea. The passive voice can even be used deliberately to create stylistic dissonance in your writing. Just don’t do that too often as it can get old quite quickly.

The truth is, the passive and the active voice are just stylistic things that pertain to clarity rather than anything else. Style cannot be “wrong”.

It is okay to deliberately use the passive voice.

First person perspective is NOT always active.

Some writers get funny ideas about voice. For example, it is not unheard of to be told by your writing group that first person is never passive. Horse biscuits! Show them this sentence which is passive and first-person – “I was hit by the football.” The active form of this sentence would be, “the football hit me.”

The next time someone tries to spout that particular folly, you can be the smug what-not that sets them right. Or you can be a bit more generous and a bit less smug – that never hurts.

Sometimes, passive voice is just better.

The reason you are advised to write with the active voice is that most of the time that will result in clearer writing. However, it can be stylistically appropriate to use the passive form from time to time. It can also be preferable for clarity to go passive voice. As the writer, that call is yours alone.

The University of Toronto lists seven times when you should use passive voice. This site lists three situations where the passive voice is the best choice:

  1. To emphasise the object.
  2. To de-emphasise an unknown subject.
  3. Because the actor is not relevant.

Consider these passive voice sentences:

  • Only ten more votes are needed to pass the law.
  • Baby Jess was delivered early this morning.
  • Over 30 different toxins contaminate the site.

In these cases, “what” is more important than “who”. Thus, the passive voice is much more direct and a load more dramatic.

You can always fix it later (if you need to).

Right now, my Yoast SEO checker is having a fit about the percentage of passive voice sentences in this post. I am okay with that. Partly because I have been citing passive voice examples but also because I am still writing.

If you let the dark editor trick you into stopping and fiddling with what you have already written, you may never get the rest of it written, to begin with. Just forget about passive and active voice and get your ideas down on paper. When it comes to reading it through, you will feel that some areas don’t “work” and re-write them. Any passive voice that is left may be okay.

When to look for passive voice.

The one time that you should go looking for passive voice sentences to “fix” is in a passage that you beta readers highlight as “hard to read” or “dry” or “boring”. Even then, only do that after you have checked that you have expressed yourself clearly and did not write a genuinely uninteresting scene.

Most of the time, you don’t need to worry about it.

In other words, just tell the story.

Having said all that about the active and the passive voice, forget it all and just tell the story. The story is what matters. The story is king. The story is why you are writing. Tell the story.

When other writers say a passage has “too much passive voice” there are two possibilities:

  1. They are right.
  2. They are wrong.

The chances are, it is the second option. According to the author, Neil Gaiman:

When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

Tell your story in the best way you can. If that means sometimes using (or abusing) some passive voice do that. If the passage turns out to be a tedious read later, you can always fix it then.

For example, Yoast SEO says that this article is now very badly written. I know that the rules I have broken make the article better but the machine following rules does not.

Over to you

Now it is time to hear from you.

  • Have you ever thought about active and passive voice in your writing?
  • Do you worry about your sentences being active or passive?
  • Do you, like me, struggle not to overuse passive voice?
  • Have other writers castigated your legitimate use of passive voice?
  • Had you even heard of these ideas before today?

Use the comments to tell me what you think, if you agree, and how you use active and passive voice when you write.

5 thoughts on “Stop worrying about active or passive voice

  1. Terri says:

    Over 30 different toxins contaminate the site is NOT passive voice.

    1. The site is the thing and contamination was what happened to it. So, yeah, I think it is. But that’s the point – active and passive is not that big a deal.

  2. Heather says:

    Thanks I needed that!

    1. I am glad you enjoyed it.

  3. Typical. I only just now noticed the missing y in “worrying” in the title of all places. I have no idea what “worring” but I am pretty sure that “thou shalt not wor” is a thing.

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