So, rather than tell you what to do, I’ll tell you what not to do–I’m definitely experienced with making mistakes.
Plus, I come across things on a regular basis while reading that don’t work as well as the author intended. As I catch these ‘mistakes,’ I’ll add them to my list of Writing Pitfalls.
The first writing pitfall I want to talk about is PASSIVE VOICE.
What is passive voice?
The term passive voice refers to the way a sentence is constructed. Passive voice uses a form of “to be” and a past participle, gerund, or infinitive. The focus of the sentence is not who or what is doing the action, but who or what the action was done to.
Why is passive voice bad?
Passive voice in itself is not bad. Problems arise when it is overused.
A common problem people encounter when using passive voice is sentences become overly wordy.
For example: Bob is shoved by Brad. This sentence includes two unnecessary words. Brad shoves Bob is clearer and shorter. When writers use clearer, shorter sentences, the pace picks up. Longer sentences slow the pace.
Another problem is passive voice can make it unclear who is performing an action.
For example: The cat was thrown out the window. I would want to know who threw the cat out the window as in: The bratty kid, Nathan, threw the cat out the window.
Is passive voice ever good?
Passive voice can be helpful at times. You just need to know how and when to use it. Sometimes you don’t have a choice, particularly if you don’t know who or what did the action.
For example: My car was hit in the parking lot. In this example, I (fictitiously) don’t know who hit my car. This sentence could be made active–Someone hit my car in the parking lot–but the change isn’t necessary if my focus is on my car instead of who hit it.
Also, passive voice is useful for technical and/or impersonal writing.
It can also be used to deflect responsibility or to be deliberately vague. For example: People were designed with two arms and two legs. Maybe you don’t want to say who designed people. Maybe it isn’t important.
My Personal Experience with Passive Voice
I tend to write in passive voice a lot. It often feels more natural to me. Thankfully, most grammar check programs can flag passive voice with a high degree of accuracy.
Fixing it, though, can be harder. Sometimes it’s tricky to figure out how to rearrange a sentence to become more active.
I have trouble with this when I’m writing book reviews because I don’t want to say “I” repeatedly, and the only other way I can think of to structure the sentence ends up being passive voice.
I also encounter difficulty when the book is my focus. For example: The book was fast-paced. Sometimes I will rewrite a sentence like that to make the author the subject: The author moved the story along quickly.
I think part of the reason I tend to write in passive voice is because I am conflict-avoidant. I don’t want to place blame or fault on anyone. Also, I think someone along the way conditioned me to be politically correct and polite by avoiding naming names. So I’ll say, “The juice was left out on the table,” rather than accuse a particular person of the action. Or instead of saying, “Jane Doe’s book bored me,” I’ll say, “The story didn’t move along as quickly as I would have liked.” That way, I’m not attacking the author; the blame is placed on the book instead of the person who wrote it.
Avoiding excessive passive voice is an ongoing challenge for me. What about you? Do you have trouble with making your sentences more active?
For more information, here are some links:
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Writing Resources page (includes grammar tips)