When It's OKAY to Write in Passive Voice

May 16, 2017

I didn't realize how often I used passive tenses in my writing until I did more study on the subject and reading through some of my earlier posts. I talked about finding a good writing style in this post, touching on using passive voice. In my research, it seemed that writing in passive voice is a "no-no" and I wondered why.

In doing some more digging, one reason given to avoid is that it often uses more words, can be vague, and can lead to a tangle of prepositional phrases*. In other words, passive voice can be too "wordy". I also think that passiveness in general signifies weakness to some people and we tend to want to be "in control." Active voice personifies that because the subject is doing the action followed by the verb.

I have found myself turned off by passiveness when watching a movie and the main character seems "unsure", "confused", and the story line is written in a way that actions were happening to him or her and not the character taking action. However, I just didn't make the connection in writing. I do like strong characters on the screen and in books. Even if the character suffers as in "Jane Eyre", I liked that her character had a strong mental attitude and didn't let her circumstances define her.

So, when is it okay to write in passive voice?

I found a good explanation on The Writer's Handbook which is: when it's the action that's emphasized rather than the subject. For example in this sentence: "After long debate, the proposal was endorsed by the long-range planning committee." To me, the subject isn't the planning committee, it's the proposal and the debate over endorsing it.

Another good example of using passive voice is when you don't want to name names, like in this example: "The procedures were somehow misinterpreted." Also, when you're describing a condition in which the subject is unknown or not important to the action as in this example: "every year, thousands of people are diagnosed as having cancer."

So, in lieu of these two types of writing, passive voice doesn't have to mean weak or indecisive, it's all in how you use it. I'm trying to pay more attention to the way I write using passive only if necessary. I think it's important in writing that words flow together seamlessly, makes sense to the reader, and makes the points clear.

*source: The Writer's Handbook

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