How to Use Passive Voice Effectively

Writing Passively 

by Laura Redden Erturk

Have you heard you should avoid passive voice in creative writing? Passive voice creates a weak sentence structure, but it can serve a purpose in different genres. Instead of showing you how to change passive voice to active, it might be more helpful to demonstrate how to use it effectively.  

For example, passive voice is useful when writing a laboratory report, as in The agent was mixed with the solvent, causing the test tube to explode. On the other hand, you could word it like this: I mixed the agent with the solvent, which caused an explosion of acid, gas, and glass. This sounds more interesting, but both ways are acceptable in a lab report. 

Passive voice can also come in handy when writing a newspaper article, especially when reporting on military action or highly politicized events. Passive voice, euphemism (substituting an agreeable expression for an offensive one), and nominalization (converting parts of speech into a noun) are tools that are particularly important when politics are involved.

Passive voice is useful in saving face and assuming power. For example: The President has been impeached. Here is an example from the UN Action to counter terrorism: All too often we are reminded that terrorism continues to inflict pain and suffering on people’s lives all over the world.” In the latter example, terrorism is the nominalization of the violent action to kill or slaughter innocent people. It is not terrorism that inflicts pain and suffering, but rather the terrorists themselves. The passive voice “we are reminded,” does not say what or who is reminding us of this fact. 

As you can see, passive voice can be used to deny agency or evade the truth. It is a tool for sounding more objective in some nonfiction discourses, but it takes a great deal of clarity out of your writing. When hearing a story, we want to know the truth, even if it is hard to swallow. The terrorists killed 20 children in the orphanage works much better than terrorism has resulted in 20 casualties. You decide how blunt you want to be, but in fiction, use passive voice sparingly.

Tell the reader what happened, and use the most effective voice in the right context.  Strong characters deserve strong verbs and direct speech in active voice to show agency and volition. Overusing passive voice disempowers your narrative.

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10 thoughts on “How to Use Passive Voice Effectively

  1. No, I will not succumb to your taste dictatorship. I like passive voice in fiction as a reader; consequently, I cannot be deterred from using it massively and shamelessly.

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      1. I think exactly as written in my previous reply. I will not be deterred from frequently using nominalisations in my fiction, either.

        Like

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