Is Passive Voice Really All Bad?

In this episode, Hayley Milliman the content lead for ProWritingAid joins JoEllen Nordstrom and they are going to talk about Passive Voice and how it affects your writing.

ProWritingAid is an Editing Platform and Style Editor and considered Grammar Guru, and they basically mentor you all in one package online, so they’ve got world-class grammar and style checking, and you can use this Platform which is a Plugin, and an extension and a tool online, to do your basic copy editing and it’s one of the professional tools we use here at First Editing where we are doing work, so the more tools you have in your bag the better off your writing is, and that’s why we are cooperating and partnering with ProWritingAid to bring you more information about how to improve your writing.

Learn more about passive voice and how it can help improve your writing now!

What is Passive Voice?

Passive voice is basically when you set up your sentence so that the subject is hidden. A subject comes right at the end. So we think about typical sentence structure as subject-verb-object like “Jane opened presents”, that’s kind of a typical active voice structure where the subject “Jane” comes at the beginning of the sentence, she’s the one doing the opening, it’s easy and clear you use to understand it. Passive voice is when the order is reversed, so instead of the presents coming at the end of the sentence, the object comes at the beginning. So if the active voice is “Jane opens the presents”, the passive voice then is “the presents were opened by Jane”.  So basically, the subject, the person doing the action is hidden at the end of the sentence rather than at the beginning of the sentence as we typically see an active voice structure so it’s what passive voice is.  You’re making it passive because the person who’s doing the action is coming after the verb has already occurred.

Some people think this is wrong so that is why this is such a touchy subject for everyone when we were writing and again we want to look at it from not only the fiction but also in general. This is not technically wrong, saying  “The present is opened by Jane” is not grammatically incorrect. And that is why it is so touchy because it is not technically incorrect. It is grammatically correct but passive sentence construction is typically more complicated and just harder for the readers to really understand. So taking from the example, “the present was opened by Jane” if you close your eyes and picture a sentence as a movie if and read the sentence very slowly, the “present” would pop into your head first. There’s nobody opening it. So, Jane, the person doing the action couldn’t pop into your mind until the end of your sentence. So in that very simple construction, it’s not really getting in your way of understanding, but when you have longer, more complicated sentences that are constructed with passive voice, oftentimes questions like who is doing this and what are they doing are harder to answer because all that important information comes at the end. So when we are thinking about constructing sentences with our readers in mind we want to make it as easy as possible for them to understand things and when you hide the kind of important information about who’s doing something at the very end of the sentence then that movie is kind of modeled in their heads. And again in a very simple sentence, it doesn’t matter too much but it becomes more complicated the more complicated a sentence is. For a lot of people it’s an issue if they are making their sentences overly wordy, are we making them over-complicated, and again are we hiding that kind of important information that our readers need behind overly awkward sentence structure.

In knowing another language, when people move things around subject-verb-object, it really messes up your brain. It doesn’t mean that every sentence has to be subject-verb-object but giving that important information is what really helps people to understand what you’re actually trying to say. In research and in academic work, it’s very helpful to do that subject-verb-object because when you move them around, it can be interpreted,  and the last thing you want with research or any kind of factual information you wanna make sure that the facts are easily interpreted.  So it is technically incorrect if we’re gonna mess around. Passive voice is not grammatically incorrect, so in typical Word processor like Microsoft Word will not flag this for you because it’s not technically incorrect that is why using Pro Writing Aid is still helpful because it will come in and flags instances when you use the passive voice and working with editors will develop as well because these are the points that can really affect your writing. So it’s really important to know where to use them because you need to fix them because they get in the way of understanding. This is something you highly prioritized when you’re working within an editing technology, like Pro Writing Aid or with an editor because it might not be technically incorrect but it’s clunky and it’s awkward for your readers and they can really get away with the understanding. It is very important to look at this again and again because it’s all about self-editing and the more you learn, the easier that you learn passively by having checkpoints we’ve been going through different things in fiction on having story elements so you can take through them, then automatically you’ll have this pilot checklist then you become over the years much stronger writer and then it allows you to then make conscious choices and then you’ll gonna get the best for your money out of an editor.

When is it okay to use a Passive Voice?


Because this is not grammatically incorrect, there might be instances, that you want to use the passive voice and that’s okay, but you need to be intentional about using them in effective instances. If you are trying to be mysterious about your subject like the newspapers. They do this a lot like if you are trying to get headlines, where they are trying to get people to click, for instance,” Woman murdered in her home ”, it’s technically passive voice because you don’t know by who. And so this is the technique that people use because people think, “ I wanna click and read more about it” and it’s horrible but the purpose of hiding this is to trick the people to click in and that might be a technique especially when you’re writing news for the web where you are trying to get clicked, sometimes you wanna hide the who and the what to get an article to get people to click. So that might be a time to use it.

Similarly, if you’re writing a mystery or you’re writing something like the subject is not aware of what’s happening. As horror, it’s mysterious that someone left something at the doorstep and the narrator doesn’t know by whom, the package was left at the doorstep earlier and you don’t know who. That is okay to use the passive voice in that instance because your narrator doesn’t know. So for trying to hide that subject, you can use passive voice.

Another instance is the subject doesn’t matter, like if you are writing a paper like New York in the 20th century and you’re saying “The empire state building was constructed in 1918″ or what it was, in that instance it doesn’t really matter by who and we know obviously it didn’t construct itself, it was constructed by somebody else but it’s not like really putting it the meaning of the sentence on to the overall point, and in that instance it‘s fine. You use the passive voice because again who is doing does not really matter and it doesn’t get away from people’s understanding. The object is very clear,  the empire state building was constructed and it’s very obvious what it is, and knowing who does it, doesn’t really get in our way of understanding what happened. So in that instance, it’s fine to use it because our meaning is clear. When going through in finding instances of passive voice, or you are using something like Pro Writing Aid and its identifying passive voice for you, you wanna ask yourself, okay does it matter what my subject is, will my reader understand this even if I keep it in this construction. Be intentional about when you are using it to make sure of your readers to not go away from your readers’ understanding and it should not be clunky.

Always think:

A. If this is getting away from my reader’s understanding,  or,

B. Is this getting away from my reader’s enjoyment?

How do we fix our Passive Voice?

So first you have to identify it. So the word “by “ is an indicator that you use a passive voice so “The present was opened by Jane”, “The Empire State Building was built by Whoever”, “Woman murdered in her Home by Whoever”, so if to understand the sentence, you need that word “by” plus a noun then it’s a good indication that you’ve used passive voice, it’s not always but 80 percent or probably higher of the time having that “by “ or “whoever” is a good indication. So first, look for the places where you have used “by ” if you’re not using something like Pro Writing Aid that can help it just find it for you.

And to the first level, it was so clunky. That’s the whole problem with the passive voice being too long and unnecessary. So first, look for the place of the word where you use “by ”. If you’re not, use something like Pro Writing Aid to help just find it for you.

The second is basically to plot your sentence around. In a passive voice, the subject is at the end and we want again to put that subject back to the beginning so “The present was opened by Jane”, Jane is the one doing something, she’s the one opening, so we got to move back at the beginning of the sentence. “Jane opened the present ” so typically again in a passive voice, your subject is at the end. They’re kind of hidden behind that word “by”. So if you wanna plot them back so that they are doing the action. So Jane opened the present, moving that subject up to the beginning and you know you can check again. You can read the sentences back to yourself and say “oh, it doesn’t make sense without the word ”by” now”. It is clear who’s doing what and it’s the active voice. And you can replace or gotta find and then you can easily go back to that again then put it in your list but again it’s just, using a tool and with all those tools professional editors use.

The tool we use is Pro Writing Aid because it makes our life easier so we can go through and the less we see marked that up by this tool, the more we dig in than to think of yourselves but if we’re just using this tool, it’s easy but we’re not gonna get much time to dig in the same way and so this is a good part of self-editing. Use the tools, come to us, make your editor earn. Everyone benefits and it really helps so again this is great.

I hope everyone is following along, we have self-editing school, together on Pro Writing Aid and of course, whenever you’re ready, don’t give up on these things, you can always click on human editors and we’ll be there to help you. Again, thank you for joining us every one, subscribe, follow along, check up the links below and we hope this has been helpful.

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