On Writing: Death to Passive Voice! Here! Here!

Yes, yes… every writer beats this topic to death. Should we use it? Should we not use it? It’s always the same questions, and there’s always one group defending it and one group saying writers shouldn’t use it.

So how do you know when you’re using passive voice? Well, passive voice happens when something is being done to the subject of the sentence.

The man was punched.

Active voice happens when the subject does something.

Alex punched the man.
Someone punched the man. (If you don’t know whodunit)

There are many writers defending passive voice as a stylistic approach to storytelling. I will never argue that style can’t trump certain rules of effective writing, but unless your main character is penning the book, narrating it, and also happens to be bad at written communication, there is no reason for anyone to use passive voice. I mean that in creative writing, not in business. Writers litter law reports, internal office memos, briefs, and all kinds of business documents with passive voice, and I suppose that’s okay. In creative writing, though, you have the power. (Did anyone else just hear He-Man in his or her head?)

Okay, it’s true that every writer, even those in business, have the power to write strong. However, business writers are stuck in this fissure dug out by decades of shitty passive voice authoring. It’s a lot like business jargon (which unequivocally annoys me): touch base with someone, shift paradigm, and all those other cringe-worthy expressions.

In creative writing, you have a chance to stick to the good stuff with nice strong writing. You can have your characters actively do things instead of… you know… having those things do something to them instead.

I read and critique many stories a year for fresh writers, and I see a lot of passive voice. Every paragraph has at least two or three passive voice phrases, and sometimes you will see a sentence with more than one!

He was killed after being called on the phone and was told the house was being watched.

How can anyone defend that? That’s the equivalent of nails on chalkboard, chewing aluminum foil, and licking Kleenex tissues all wrapped into one uncomfortable feeling. Also, I just died from that goose bump inducing sensory overload. Pardon me while I recuperate.

Truthfully, there is a place for passive voice in fiction, and it’s in dialog. In fact, you can get away with many things in dialog. Poor grammar, mixing tenses, contractions that don’t exist, words that don’t exist, and all kinds of other things. Should you? I don’t really know. It depends on your story, but if you can avoid it for the sole sake of clarity, then you should.

Do you find yourself defending passive voice? Is it all over your prose like chicken pox? Do you avoid it, too, but see it everywhere? Let me know in the comments below or find me on Facebook or Twitter!

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