What Not to Write Part 2: Passive vs. Active Voice

While doing crits awhile back, I came upon one writer's feedback (to another writer; it wasn't me) to lose the was, were, is, are, has been/had been etc. in their writing. Her point was that using the 'to be' verb is passive writing.

I think I butted in their discussion to say that the use of said verbs doesn't immediately mean it's passive writing; instead, PASSIVE VOICE happens when the subject is being acted upon by the verb.

e.g. Miss Harriet was being wooed by the dashing Duke of Norfolk.
        subject                  verb                        agent of the action

*Note: It is not necessary to have an agent of the action. If we remove it, the sentence remains passive: Miss Hariet was being wooed.

As opposed to ACTIVE VOICE, which is when the subject is acting or doing the verb:

e.g. The dashing Duke of Norfolk wooed Miss Harriet.

Sounds simple enough, doesn't it? So why do we have such a hard time with passive and active voice?

The aforementioned writer who banished the wases and weres down the pit of Tartarus did not concur with me, as evident by the prose she wrote that I had to read later on with an aspirin and a cup of water by my side. (She also despised had/had been.)She was so determined to root out all the was and were and had been that her prose became choppy and convoluted.

Now I would never tarnish any other writer's name or their works, nor would I use somebody else's work to make a point for my own use and without consent. So I had to make my own narrative here, with the purpose of showing how sticking to the rule book like a deer tick doesn't benefit anyone, least of all a writer. (Actually, I don't think there's a rule that says you can never use 'to be' verbs. That would be criminally insane! Okay, exaggeration but you know what I mean.)

e.g. I looked out the window and saw him waiting for me. I planned to tell my mother, but I changed my mind at the last minute. She wouldn't understand. I wrote her a letter when she knocked on my door.

Do you see what's wrong here? Let's try that again.

e.g. I looked out the window and saw him waiting for me. I had been planning to tell my mother, but I changed my mind at the last minute. She wouldn't understand. I was writing her a letter when she knocked on my door.

>>Using had been in the sentence I had been planning to tell... does not make it passive because the subject I is doing the action had been planning to tell.

>>Again on next sentence I was writing her a letter.... This is a form of Past Continuous, by the way. To turn this into passive voice, we would have the object, in this case the letter, being acted upon by the subject I.

e.g. The letter was being written by me when she knocked on the door. [passive]

Sometimes, people confuse tense with passivity. I found a really handy chart where you can see the difference between Active and Passive Voice in different tenses.


Still confused? You can find great resources here and here. I'm sure there are more helpful sites out there if you google them. (I love Google--we're bffs.)

Passive voice has its uses, so please do not flush it down the toilet. I can cite two, taken from one of the links I've given above:

1. When the actor in the situation is not important.

e.g. Twenty ml of acid was poured into the beaker.

2. When it is more important to draw attention to the thing or person acted upon.

e.g. The pedestrian was hit during rush hour.

If someone tells you to get rid of all the was and were and had been in your writing, don't take it too literally. And don't get too crazy. Writing is an art form (it's why we have poetry) because it has other elements to make it beautiful, not just perfecting your basic grammar. There's voice, beats, pacing, sophistication...and rules are really more like guidelines.

As always, aim for balance. Stay true to your voice, and have fun writing. =)


Lori M. Lee said...

Great post! Love how you clarified this, and I feel a little bad for that writer who thought she had to strike 'to be' verbs from her manuscript b/c that must have been such a headache to WRITE, never mind reading it lol.

Anita said...

Excellent post. And yes, it's all about balance in this craft. I think that's the most important lesson any writer can learn. Thanks Cherie!

Christine Murray said...

Brilliant post. Like Lori, I thought the big failure of my book was my overuse of 'to be' verbs, but this post has put everything in context.


Deana said...

Thank you! I really wish this could be clarified more in the writing world rather than just randomly throwing out, "don't use was in your writing, it tells." Because you are so right, tense means something and if you are in past tense then you must use these words or it will sound like crap. Love the way you explained it, I may have to blog about this myself and use yours as an example...great post!

cherie said...

Thank you, ladies. I'm glad it was helpful. Too often we see this advice in writing forums, like what Deana has mentioned, to lose the was and were. I think this gets misunderstood, and I really wanted people to see that was/were is not evil.

I'm glad I was able to clarify that here. Thanks for the feedback.

@Deana: Thanks for following! And welcome to my haven. ;)

@Christine Murray: Thanks for stopping by ;)

@Lori: She didn't like it when I told her her prose was choppy. But I critique as I see it. No hand-holding with me.

@Anita: Yep. Balance is the key. Thanks for stopping by, my friend. Have a lovely day!

Caitlin Vincent said...

Great post, Cherie. Very informative and helpful :)

T.S. Welti said...

This is why I hate writing "rules" sometimes. Some people take them too seriously and apply them too literally. Of course, knowing when to break the "rules" takes confidence, and confidence is not something you can learn; it comes with time, experience, and LOTS of failure.

Great post!

cherie said...

Thanks, Caitlin. ;)

@T.S.: Hi, so nice of you to drop by. I totally agree with you. Thanks for your comment. :)

Jenny Phresh said...

You are remarkably useful and organized! Love the handy charts. I think it's so instinctual and rules are made to be bent...but only becomes so after much trial and error. That's why those rotten diaries I kept in school have their use-- whinging about things like: "My heart was sorely wounded by a boy" (passive, of course).
P.S. I am so glad my classic posts made you snort liquids on a published author's work!

Bluestocking Mum said...

Hi Cherie

yes, I also like how you state this. Passive writing is something became accused of early in my writing journey, so I know all about it.

Thank yo so much for my award (which I've responded to on your ealier post) and in case you don't see, I'd like to thank you for all your posts of encouragement and support.

It's been great to meet you and I look forward to remaining firm friends, even though the A-Z challenge is behind us


cherie said...

Debbie! You're back! How was your caravan vacation? I hope you were able to rest and enjoy it. Thank you for the nice things you said--we will definitely continue this friendship. :) You are an inspiration to me.

cherie said...

Jenny, doesn't it make you feel good to know your posts were more interesting than a published work? Yeah, I have to learn not to keep liquids nearby when I'm visiting your blog. ;)

Joyce Alton said...

Oh yes. Going to refer this post a lot.

Post a Comment

Thanks for stopping by!

Precy Larkins's books on Goodreads
Winter's Regret: What Might Have Been Winter's Regret: What Might Have Been
reviews: 2
ratings: 4 (avg rating 5.00)



2014 Reading Challenge

2014 Reading Challenge
Precy has read 10 books toward her goal of 50 books.

Blog Archive

My Blog List


Precy's bookshelf: read

Whispering Minds
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Night of Cake & Puppets
The Fault in Our Stars
The Return of the King
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
The Last Olympian
The Hundred: Fall of the Wents
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
The Hunger Games
The Founders' Code
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
The Two Towers
The Book Thief
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
The Lost Hero
The Battle of the Labyrinth

Precy Larkins's favorite books »