Tips for Authors #10 – Passive Language

Learn how to strengthen your writing!

One of the things many new writers struggle with is passive language, so we’ll take a look at what passive language is, what active language is and when to use both.

First, active language is when the subject does something. “Jeremy rode his bike.” Simple. Direct. Everyone knows what’s happening here. Active language is, generally, the strongest way to write. It is direct, and being direct makes it stronger. There is no ambiguity in the language, and more importantly there is action performed by someone.

The passive voice changes the structure a little. Instead of the subject performing an action, in passive language, the subject receives the action. To use the example above, the passive sentence would be “The bike was ridden by Jeremy.”

Just by looking at the two sentences, you can see one reads much stronger than the other. The active voice has the subject performing an action and it reads for exactly what it is. The second sentence turns “the bike” into the focus of the story, as if it allowed Jeremy to ride it. Technically, adding “by Jeremy” lets us know that Jeremy is the one the action is being performed on, but he is no longer the subject of the sentence. In fact, you can even omit him from the sentence entirely. “The bike was ridden.” And now we no longer know who rode the bike, and it seems as if it’s a magical bicycle.

Now, passive voice isn’t technically incorrect, and there are plenty of times to use it. But the language is weaker because you have to move to the past perfect verb tense, and that reads as a much weaker form.

It is much stronger to just directly state the action.

Many times writers try to do this because they think it brings a reader close to the story or that it builds suspense. However, it usually works the opposite. Most readers can’t explain it, but they find it off putting. The action isn’t happening directly, so the “flow” of your work is hampered by the language.

There are times to use passive voice. “Jeremy’s car was stolen” is a completely acceptable sentence and the best way to write that. “The prisoner was taken to his cell,” is another example. Even though, you can rewrite both these sentences to be even more direct. “Some stole Jeremy’s car” and “Guards took the prisoner to his cell” are both even stronger sentences.

While the passive voice has its uses, it is best to keep an eye on that to make sure you are using the most direct language possible. Think about how often we hear politicians or others in high-ranking positions say “Mistakes were made.” We all know how frustrating that is to hear. There is no one assigned to the action. We don’t know the most important parts – what mistakes and who made them?

So, when you’re sweating through your edits, keep an eye out for passive language. And when you spot it, add some action!

This chart offers a great look at verb tense with passive language. You can see the strength in the more direct statements.

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