Are You Overly Passive?

Writers have heard a lot about avoiding passive voice or passive construction. Some are overly neurotic about this topic, making hard-and-fast rules that say you should never ever use the word was anywhere in your writing. But I disagree. There are times when passive voice or the word was is the best choice. If your character is in the process of doing one thing when something else happens, you need to use the passive progressive structure: “I was stirring the noodles when my contact fell into the water.” That works perfectly. If you try to rewrite that to avoid the passive construction and come up with “I stirred the noodles as my contact fell in the water” it’s a bit off. Sure, writers often overuse the progressive tense (“was ___ing” or “is ___ing”). But there are times when it is just right. When the receiver of the action is more important than the doer, the passive voice is preferable and sometimes more effective.

In the passive voice, the subject and direct object are reversed, and this reversal can occur in any verb tense, for example:

  • Tom watches football while the grass is cut by Sue. (Present tense)
  • Tom watched football while the grass was cut by Sue. (Simple past tense)
  • Tom is watching football while the grass is being cut by Sue. (Present progressive tense)
  • Tom was watching football while the grass was being cut by Sue. (Past progressive tense)
  • Tom has watched football while the grass has been cut by Sue. (Present perfect tense)
  • Tom had watched football while the grass had been cut by Sue. (Past perfect tense)
  • Tom will watch football while the grass will be cut by Sue. (Future tense)
  • Tom will be watching football while the grass will be being cut by Sue. (Future progressive tense)

By using a more active voice, you will have a stronger, less wordy sentence. Why not just say “Tom watched football while Sue cut the grass”?

So don’t be so strict with passive voice, yet think about using it only when it conveys the exact meaning you’re after. I recently pulled out a handful of NY Times best sellers from my shelf and skimmed through the first few pages. I was pretty amazed at how many sentences were structured with weak passive voice. So although it’s very common to use it, overuse does weaken your writing overall. Using Word’s “Find” feature for was, were, ising, and are can help you catch some of these and consider changing them.

2 Responses to “Are You Overly Passive?”

  1. Melissa Maygrove July 13, 2012 at 11:34 am #

    I agree with you about that. I’ve had crit partners who highlighted every ‘was’ in my sub! LOL

    Still, sometimes fresh eyes can see something we can’t.
    ‘My contact fell into the pot of noodles I was stirring.”
    It still has the progressive ‘was stirring,’ but reversing the order makes it sounds more active – to my ears anyway. Whether it would actually work in context of the paragraph it came from is the question. 😉

  2. Pamela King Cable July 19, 2012 at 7:12 pm #

    I got to say, I think it’s confusing as all get out. If I sit and think about this stuff too much, I’ll never write a thing.
    🙂 But kudos to you for trying to get it through our thick heads.

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