Writing 101: So What is Passive Voice?

Do you write in the passive voice? Do you know what that means? If you don't, that's okay. I still have trouble with distinguishing passive language myself. It's one of those ephermal writing characteristics that can, very subtly, alter the tone of your book. I'm not one of those writers who are against writing in the passive voice, because every author should strike their own tone when writing their own work. But I do feel that writers ought to know the difference between active and passive voice...because how can you decide if you don't understand both choices? 

We Were Writers

Now, I could get really technical with the forthcoming description of passive voice. In my research for this post, I've discovered that this is the most common approach. But when writing about something that's complicated, taking a highly technical approach isn't likely to help most people. So I'm going to do my best to put it in plain English. 

The difference between passive voice and active voice is subtle, but if you can spot it you can spot it. See if you can: 

We were walking hand-in-hand.


We walked hand-in-hand. 

He was carrying the bucket.


He carried the bucket.

See the difference? In both pairs, the top sentence is the one written in passive voice. In each instance, the subject of the sentence (we and he, respectively) is separated from the verb. The bottom two sentences in each pair are stronger, with the subject and verb appearing together. Both sentences are correct, and both have the same meaning. But there's a small variation in the tone of each. We walked is more direct than we were walking.

Look for certain words that will tip you off if you're writing in the passive voice. Variations of the verbs to have and to be often indicate passive voice. Examples:

He was talking to Shelby over there.

She has been giving me funny looks all day. 

And if you go shopping around for writing tips elsewhere (though I don't know why you would!), you'll find that many authors advise you to avoid writing in the passive voice. As a freelance writer, it's something that editors have criticized me about in the past as well. But when you're writing your books, you know what tone you want to strike. The passive voice may suit a weak-willed or timid character. It may be useful in a situation where the character feels powerless, or frightened. 

If you write in the active voice a little more sparingly in a book, and use passive voice throughout, you can make a bigger impact with certain scenes. Abruptly switching from passive to active voice can be jarring. It can make a scene feel quicker, more direct and actionable. It can make the pages feel a little more exciting. 

So what is the passive voice? It's a writing tool. It's something you can use to make your writing feel a certain way. As an author, you should always use all the available writing tools at your disposal...no matter what those other tipsters might say.

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