Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Passive Voice

I'm going to share one of my greatest writing weaknesses (oops, see? I just made the error in that sentence! - "I'm = I am," lol). The evil passive voice. Overuse of the dreaded "to be" verb.

I didn't even know I had a problem with this until a Creative Writing teacher of mine - at the Master's level - started circling the verbs in my papers. It shocked me. Until that moment, no other teacher in all my years of schooling had ever marked passive voice.

Once I started to recognize and fix the evils of passive voice, my writing changed for the better. It truly did. Now, yes, I still have the tendency (*see first sentence) to let it sneak in, but at least now I'm aware of it and can change it during the editing process as much as possible.

I've found that many of my writing students don't know how to recognize passive voice or how to correct it. So, I give them this simple example sentence:

Romeo and Juliet was written by Shakespeare.

That sentence is passive for two reasons: 1) Romeo & Juliet, the subject, is passive (not "doing" the action), and 2) we have that pesky "was" - a passive verb. Other forms of passive "to be" verbs to watch out for: is, am, are, were, be, being, been.

An easy way to fix that sentence, to make it active:

Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet.

Now, we have Shakespeare, the subject, performing the action in the sentence, and our verb suddenly became active, wrote.

A writer should try to make his/her sentences active rather than passive (as much as possible) because it makes the writing more exciting, more active. It's not possible to eliminate the passive voice from every single sentence. But if you start to see the "be" verbs in EVERY sentence you write, there's a problem.

The reader will probably never notice active/passive sentences, but something about active sentences makes the writing more interesting. And that's always a good thing. ;-)

So, just curious: Anybody else have trouble/difficulty with passive voice? Do you have a similar story to mine, where you didn't even realize you had that "issue" until later on in your writing life?


  1. Thank you for this example! It sounds like you and I should join a support group, because this is exactly my issue. I still struggle with identifying it myself, but my critique buddies have helped immensely.

  2. LOL, Rebecca - I love the idea of a "passive voice support group." PV Anonymous? LOL

    I think PV is such a problem with a lot of people because we tend to "talk" in passive voice, so we naturally write in it, too. But, who knows...some people have no problem with it at all. I'm just not one of those people. ;-)

    Good to know I'm not alone!

  3. Awesome!!! Now I know how to write pracs for my science exam, tyvm XD

  4. I'll join your PV Anonymous group! Thanks for the 'passive voice' lesson.