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Blog: The Writers' Study

© Richard Calver

Jeanette Taylor of The Scribes is a writer, instructor, mentor and editor. She shares monthly musings about writing, based upon her classes and workshops. She also posts history tales of the BC coast. Read more…

Write Straight to the Point

The passive voice—with its side stepping, roundabout phrasing—lacks clarity, punch and immediacy. Many of us speak in this suggesting-things way, but when it slips into our writing it both deadens the impact and requires more words.

Arthur Racham’s depiction of Cinderella, a passive woman who speaks up at last.

I know this, but in a bid to strike a conversational tone, a passive style sometimes slips into my writing and hides there, true to its obsequious nature, through multiple edits.

Like many Canadians, my initial attempts at an active writerly voice seemed brash, brazen and downright rude. But it’s not. It’s the basis of clear, forthright and succinct communication.

Examples of Passive and Active Phrasing

There’s nothing technically wrong with the first two passive sentences below, pulled from a regional newspaper. They are grammatically correct and the subject is clear, but they lack the immediacy needed in a call to action:

Passive: Organizers are awarding cash prizes to the winners in three categories.
Active: Organizers will award cash prizes to winners in three categories.

Passive: There will be an opening of the multimedia show ‘Blue Season’ on June 1.
Active: The multimedia show ‘Blue Season’ opens on June 1.

A passive style of writing, says Janet Burroway in her excellent guide, Writing Fiction, distances the reader. The active verb (italicized below) should take the lead in the sentence, not the other way around:

Passive: The milk was spilled by her.
Active: She spilled the milk.

“Linking verbs,” (is, were, are, has etc) also produce a passive tone, points out Burroway, as do verbs modified by ing:

Passive: The boy was running up the hill.
Active: The boy ran up the hill.

Watch for the passive voice in everything you read from here on and gage its impact. There are places for a passive voice, says Burroway. You may want to convey a hesitant, weak, or victimized character, or a nebulous situation through the tone of your writing as well as in dialogue and action. Otherwise, use the active voice to fully engage readers.