Writing Rules Explained: Don’t Use Passive Voice

Writing Rules Explained: Don’t Use Passive Voice | Tips for writers from a freelance editor about using passive voice, and when it’s actually okay to use it. A must watch for writers who aren’t sure about passive voice.

I have a plug-in on my website that constantly tells me to rewrite my content because I use passive voice too much. If I were to import my content into an online text analyser, I’d get the same result. “Don’t use passive voice” is a rule that you can bet appears on probably just about every list of writing rules, and writers don’t often question it.

Passive voice exists for a reason. Text analysers acknowledge this because they give you a passive voice allowance, but apparently if you go over this allowance, there’s a good chance your writing sucks.

Thing is, many of my points are conveyed better in passive voice than active, so you can understand why I want to tear up this rule. It should be less of a ‘do and do not do’ and more of a ‘writing is about expressing your ideas in the most efficient way, and if that means using passive voice, then screw the rules’.

What is passive voice?

Voice communicates the relationship between the action and the subject of a clause. In an active construction, the subject (the noun the sentence is about) is doing the action. In a passive construction, the subject is having the action done to it.

Why shouldn’t you use passive voice?

Passive voice is generally frowned upon because it makes sentences clunky, vague and awkward. So if you can change the subject of the sentence in order to rewrite it in active voice without this changing your meaning, then do so. If, however, rewriting the sentence in active voice will not effectively communicate your meaning, that’s a different matter.

When should you use passive voice?

My dog was stung by a bee. Then, when running home to safety, he was hit by a car. This (thankfully fictional) story is about my dog. My dog is the focus, the subject. He’s the important factor here. This story is about him and what happened to him. Change it to active voice—A bee stung my dog. Then, as he was running home to safety, a car hit him—and the story is no longer just about my dog. The bee and car are given greater roles in the story because they are now the subjects of their respective clauses. As the focus of the story has shifted from my dog to everything else that was involved, it does not evoke as much sympathy from the reader. If evoking sympathy was my intention, a passive construction would communicate this better.

Passive constructions allow you to write more concise sentences by omitting the agent of the action where possible. In the sentence John Doe was hit by a car and was rushed to hospital, the accident and the fact that the victim is receiving medical attention are of highest importance; therefore, John Doe should be the subject, and the method of transport is irrelevant. The active construction–A car hit John Doe and an ambulance rushed him to hospital–is too wordy and fails to get to the point as quickly.

The subject of the sentence isn’t always the one executing the action, but is still important enough to remain the subject. The agent of the verb isn’t always known or important. Sometimes, passive voice can get across your message more effectively than active voice.

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