Sketchy Writing Advice – The Time and Place for Passive Voice

Disclaimer: the following writing advice is base on the author’s personal experience of writing and does not represent any hard or fast rules. Your mileage may vary.

The Passive Voice Narrative

How to talk about passive voice as a useful thing? An okay thing? An allowed thing? So many of us as writers have received the advice that we need to change the passive voice in our work to active voice. This is good and important advice. You should do that. I even explain how to change passive voice to active voice in another post, because I live in the camp of advocates for active writing. Especially after having just read a book with the most passive writing I have ever witnessed in traditional publishing. An actual slog to get through.

Reading too much passive voice is unpleasant and boring. But, contrary to what short, insightful, and thought provoking nuggets of wisdom like write in active voice would have you think, passive voice has a place in your prose. Albeit, a sparing one.

A quick note.

First and foremost, always consider ways to change the passive phrase you think you need to use into an active one. You may not need that passive phrase as much as you think. But after you have exhausted your options in active voice and found no alternatives, you may use passive voice. That’s how you break the rules like an artist.

What’s the big deal?

Just to make sure we’re on the same page, let us recap the definitions and differences between what makes passive and active voice.

Being verbs: A ThoughtCo.com article states that “a verb that does not show action instead indicates a state of being. …[I]n English most being verbs are forms of to be (am, are, is, was, were, will be, being, been, etc.).”

Adverbs: Any word that ends in -ly (quickly, oily, chilly, moodily, etc.).

Action verbs: Any verb not one of the two above (run, slam, kiss, hold, breathe, help, etc.).

Being verbs and adverbs make up passive voice, while the leftover action verbs make up active voice.

When to Use Passive Voice

Everyone told you to get rid of your being verbs and your -ly adverbs, but… hey, that published writer used several being verbs in that paragraph! And some adverbs over there! Why do they get to use passive voice and I don’t?!

I understand your frustration.

Some exceptions to this rule exist, but it takes getting good at writing in active voice to begin noticing them. I cannot stress enough that you should understand and execute active voice in your writing before you start toying with these exceptions. You must use your own judgement on when your unique words merit some passive voice, but below, I have put together a list of when I have noticed that passive voice works.

When writing a rough draft

While I recommend learning to write in active voice in the first place to train those brain muscles, writing your rough draft in passive voice is not the shameful act some feedback would have you think. Using being verbs and -ly adverbs helps you get your thoughts down on the page. Those first thoughts act as a road map to tell later you, editor you, what you meant by this. Just make sure you edit out your passive voice before you take new pieces to your next writing group meeting or post them up on your blog.

When an object is at rest

Rarely does this exception occur, but it has a lot to do with an object’s potential for movement. Some examples:

Active voice: He stood next to the door.
Passive voice: He was standing next to the door.

The first example in active voice implies your character just now stood next to the door. He moved there, stopped there, or got to his feet there, and thus, he stood. The second example in passive voice implies your character may have stood next to the door for some length of time. Less an action and more a continuation of a previous act. So you have the option to portray how long your character has done or has been doing something through your choice of active or passive voice.

Another example:

Active voice: A comet flew across the sky.
Passive voice: A comet was flying across the sky.

In the first example, the use of the active verb flew indicates the comet performed this action before any description to follow took place. Zzzip, gone! A mighty quick comet. The second example using the passive phrase was flying indicates that the comet continues to fly across the sky as the descriptions that follow take place. This object’s action becomes a backdrop to whatever else happens until the writer describes that said passive action has ceased or the scene has ended.

When a character’s thoughts shift to the theoretical

In my observations of when a character’s thoughts occur in passive voice, I have noticed that this works best not in the paragraph’s first line or its last, but somewhere in the middle. An active first line draws readers into the paragraph, where they feel more willing to read some passive thinking sorts of sentences. Then, an active last couple of lines draws the reader back out of that state of passivity and keeps them interested in reading the next paragraph.

Example, with active in bold and passive in italics:

I struck out across the river, struggling to swim against the current. Trying not to think scary water thoughts. How deep was the water? Were there alligators here? Fear chased me across the river. I almost cried when my fingers touched the muddy bank on the other side.

This example of passive voice could still function better as active voice. But I would stick to passive voice here if I wanted to get these thoughts across while not lingering over them too much. Plus, passive voice in the middle of a paragraph can allow your readers a small brain break before getting them back to the action.

When indicating emphatic truth

Using passive voice sparingly lends power to your occasional use of being verbs. As such, you can use them to make true statements that carry much more weight when you pull them out.

Examples:

Too much passive voice: She was a straight A student and she had never even been in trouble! They were accusing her of murder, but she was no killer.
Just enough passive voice: She crushed her grades every year and kept herself out of trouble. They had accused her of murder, but she was no killer.

Compare all the being verbs in the first example to the number of these in the second. So many claims of truth in the first stole the impact of the final claim. But in the second example, one moment of passive voice surrounded by so many active verbs made that statement stand out and shine. Every active verb indicates an action that took place once, so that the one passive verb indicates a state of true and continuous being as not a killer.

When replacements for adverbs make the prose too wordy

I am guilty of this myself. Complete aversion to the use of passive voice can cause you to stuff in more words than necessary just to avoid adverbs. Yet sometimes I relax a little. Above, I used an adverb in the sentence that begins, “Using passive voice sparingly…” I allowed myself this bit of passivity because the alternative for that adverb sparingly would have come out as: “Using passive voice once in a while…” That adds a solid four words and would not get the point across as well as the adverb did.

Use your judgement here.

My personal guiding principle on adverbs decrees that I can use one adverb in a paragraph at most, so I must make it count. That means I cannot waste the adverb on a gerund + adverb [-ing verb + –ly adverb] phrase such as “walking quickly.” I also should not waste it on the next step up in passive voice, qualitative adverbs, such as necessarily, only, eventually, occasionally, or especially. Use your adverbs where they will have the most impact and will weaken your prose the least, if you must use them at all.

Takeaways

  1. Passive voice includes any ‘being verbs’ (be, was, been, is, were, am, are) and –ly adverbs
  2. Active verbs are any other verbs besides being verbs and adverbs
  3. While not very often, passive voice has its place
    • When writing a rough draft
    • When an object is at rest
    • When a character’s thoughts shift to the theoretical
    • When indicating emphatic truth
    • When replacements for adverbs make the prose too wordy
  4. You should learn to write in active voice a majority of the time
  5. You must use your judgement on when passive voice will have the most impact

How I learned this skill.

Long ago, I resolved to write just in active voice and avoid all being verbs and adverbs. This forced me to learn how to change passive voice into active voice. But as I developed a standard for writing within certain word count limits or for tightening up my prose by X percentage, I found that, at times, an adverb would serve better than a bunch of other words. Or a being verb would make a point pop better. I did make sure to set myself some guidelines, as above, to avoid overusing passive voice to the point of lazy writing.

My journey to a certain, qualitative acceptance of passive voice began during a conversation with my high school writing mentor, Jennifer Archer. I had mentioned my revelations about the importance of active voice during a school project and how a session with a local writing group had put into words the lessons learned in that project. Active voice. Voíla. It had a name.

Jenny then told me that her editor had once changed an instance of active voice in her prose into passive voice. Indeed, the very example used above in, “He was standing next to the door.” That one conversation led me to wonder, when else can I use passive voice?

Got any questions about using passive voice? Let me know in the comments below. If you have any stories about how YOU learned tricks for writing in passive voice, I want to hear them!


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The Hopeful Wanderer – Making Change

Sweet, floral perfume hung on the stale air of a forgotten warehouse. Wafting among corroded pipes, which wove their way along a high ceiling and around long, dusty windows. Drifting through the trash and dead leaves scattered across a concrete floor. Reflecting off once-white walls and old, broken furniture.

I was following a trail of flowers.

Each blossom sprang from the concrete as if grown from dirt – fresh, colorful, trembling with life. The trail meandered this way and that, seeming to follow the least messy path through the warehouse. Once, it stopped at the windows, leaving a large cluster of plants there. A circle rubbed clean of muck showed where hands had wiped away the dirt for a clear view outside.

I did not bother looking out myself. This city, I knew, only decayed.

At the farthest end of the warehouse, a curious thing hung from above. A bower of flowers, twisted around themselves and ballooning upward to the ceiling, where strong roots dug into cracks in the plaster. This bower reached almost to the floor, where a gaunt woman stood weaving more blooms in among the rest. A carpet of blossoms festooned the floor around her. The trail ended here.

Candlelight illuminated my approach, evidencing my following of her, yet she did not stop her work. The plants around the hem of her dress seemed to grow without pause.

When I had come close, I asked, “Who are you?”

She drew another cluster of flowers from the floor to the bower in her hands. “Nobody,” she replied.

Groaning sounded from above and I tipped my gaze upward. The roots along the ceiling spread even farther. “And what are you doing here?”

A small, bitter smile. “Nothing. Just trying to make a small change.”

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The Hopeful Wanderer – A Seed of Doubt

Brushed with soft pink hues in the fading evening light, full white dandelion heads stretched away from either side of a dirt path. Evidence of a wishing festival lay scattered all around me – broken, bald stalks discarded in the dirt. On still air rode the scent of sap and cut grass, warning other plants of the danger of being plucked.

More than half of the dandelion field lay in ruin. Stalks crunched beneath my shoes as I made my way to the first line of puffs still sanding. Rumors said this particular field imparted more potent wishes than most, but only on one day of the year. Today. I knelt and took a living stalk in hand. I had until the suns fell bellow the horizon to make my wish.

A little burst of feathery seeds floated past my face. Someone’s earlier wish. I followed their progress into the smokey blue evening, away until I could see them no longer. Sun rays glanced through the head of the dandelion I held poised to pick, illuminating the clinging seeds like the hundred tiny things I wanted. Yet how they clung, not quite ready to go or else they would have already gone. In what way had I earned a say in that timing?

As the suns slipped away, I sighed and released the dandelion, laying back on the bed of destroyed plants. Better these seeds flew off in their own time and not in mine.

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The Hopeful Wanderer – Next Time

Just peculiar enough to look like an accident, a white truck hulked beneath a tree in bloom. The pale pollen and petals piled upon its windshield, however, revealed that it had huddled below the heavy branches for a long time. Nighttime crouched like a presence between the tree trunk and the car door.

A rustling sent my heart skittering. No breeze had brushed the branches, yet somehow the darkness moved. I stood before the car, now regretting my curiosity to investigate. My feet felt rooted to the grassy ground. An unusual scent of burning carburetor hung in the still air.

Two things happened at once. A massive gust of wind rose, sending me stumbling toward that darkened gap with the force of a pair of hands. From out below the tree rushed a person, eyes wide, clothes bedraggled, face bloodied. I could pick out no more details before they slammed into me, shoving me against the wind until at last it dropped, no longer pushing me from behind.

The person’s voice quivered as they clung to me. “Don’t go in there,” they said. Then they released me and scrambled off into the night.

A moment of quiet. Then a screech of rending metal tore through the air. The truck quivered. Buckled. Dragging deeper beneath the tree. I stumbled back, but couldn’t turn away. Crunching like chewing sounded as the truck lurched backward, crushing smaller and smaller until none of it was left.

Leaves shivered as the tree seemed to smile, white blooms like blunt teeth. Low, rumbling laughter. Nearly friendly, but not quite.

“Next time, Wanderer.”

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The Hopeful Wanderer – Guided Passage

Light bloomed behind me in a passage I had already cleared, so bright as to drown out the glow of my flashlight. Looking back, I had to hold up a hand to shield my eyes. I could see nothing but the sandstone walls of the cavern.

“Are you lost?” a voice asked. It echoed around the chamber ahead as well as behind, surrounding me.

“I don’t think so,” I replied. “Can you point that elsewhere?”

The light shifted away, its absence revealing a man holding a staff tipped with a glowing crystal. Shirtless and barefoot. A lean, hungry look in his narrow eyes.

“Where are you going?” the stranger asked. “I can guide you.”

“Have you been following me?” I asked. “You weren’t there when I passed through just now.”

“I live in these caves,” he replied. His shadow loomed huge on the wall between us. “I guide the lost.”

Noting that he had failed to answer my question, I said, “I wouldn’t take up your time. If you could just point me toward the way out…”

The man’s mouth pressed into a thin line. He paused so long I wondered if he would even respond. Then, arm raised toward the passage I had been following already, he said, “Take a left at the first fork.” With that, he dimmed the crystal, melting away down another passage. As he did, his fading shadow shifted to look just a little like a jackal.

After waiting a moment to ensure the man wouldn’t return, I pressed on. At the first fork, I took a right, following the directions of a map I had acquired for this trip. It wasn’t long before I reached the exit. Once out, I added a note to the map’s corner. ‘Offering of guidance not to be trusted.’

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The Hopeful Wanderer – Getting Collected

When I went to ride the elevator back downstairs, I found a pair of legs sticking out of the doors of the only working car. They had not been there when I first came up, looking clean but uncomfortable against the grimy concrete floor. Unmoving. Out of place.

The elevator dinged and the doors started shutting. They bounced off the sides of the woman lying half in and half out of the car, then slid back open with the realization that someone blocked their path. She made a little ‘oof’ noise, but otherwise didn’t move.

I stopped next to her legs, looking down at her. “Not a great place for a nap,” I observed.

She just blinked at the wall in response.

Once again the elevator dinged and the doors began to slide. I slipped between them, pressing them open with my back. Then I leaned there, wondering if she was having a fit.

“Just let them close,” the woman mumbled.

At least she was coherent. I scrunched my face in skepticism. “I don’t think I will,” I replied. “It’ll just hurt you more.”

Her shoulders hitched with a heavy exhalation. “Whatever.”

We stood that way a long time, the doors bumping my back every now and then. One or two other people showed up to use the elevator, but I shooed them in the direction of the stairs. They cast quizzical looks at me over their shoulders.

Sometime later, the woman got up on hands and knees and crawled into the elevator car. I stepped inside with her. The doors closed behind me with a relieved sigh.

She flopped down on the tiles and looked up at me. “I think I can make it home now.”

I nodded, hand hovering over the buttons panel. “What floor?”

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The Hopeful Wanderer – Emergency Dive

A muted clanking sounded from the door. All of us in the room tensed, thinking the water pressure outside had at last overpowered the sealed door’s capacity to keep it out. But then the clanking came again, rhythmic, like knocking.

“They’re here,” I said. “Get ready.”

The group moved around behind me. I took several breaths then held, and pulled the door open.

A torrent of water gushed in, swinging the door wide and slamming me into everyone in a confused mass of tangled limbs and roaring water and cries of surprise. The room began to fill in no time. We floated upward with it toward the rapidly approaching ceiling.

Once above the door frame, the waters calmed. Then a person burst up from below the surface, wearing goggles and a tank on her back. She popped out her mouthpiece, spraying water. “How many?” she asked.

“Seven,” a woman next to me replied.

The diver handed out Y-shaped breathers. I affixed mine just as my hair brushed the ceiling and water closed over my head. The lights flickered out. By the beam of a flashlight attached to the diver’s harness, I saw her counting heads. Satisfied everyone had their breathers in, she made a ‘follow me’ motion.

We filed after her back down through the door and into the flooded shopping center. Racks of floating shirts tugged against their hangers, like curious cloth creatures. Other divers led more swimmers to our destination, a floor just above the flood waters.

When we climbed out onto dry carpet, I said, “What happened?”

“Levy broke out of nowhere,” our rescuer replied. She began collecting breathers.

“What do we do now?” a man asked.

The diver pointed out toward a balcony. “Wait for rescue.” Then she flipped back into the water and vanished below.

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The Hopeful Wanderer – The Lonely Operator

Though the warped radio station door stuck to the jamb when I pulled it open, just inside, unseen machinery hummed productively. Unseen, because thin smoke drifted along the floor, curling around my shoes. I reopened the door, letting the strong breeze outside push it wide.

A distorted voice, as if piped through a ham radio, echoed from within the smoke. “Qpn-zee? Is that you?”

Ah. Wrong number. “No,” I called back. “But I got your signal.”

Eyes watering, I pulled my shirt up over my nose and stepped deeper into the station. The vague outline of a room opened out into a single, circular control booth, lit with the ambient glow of a constellation of buttons. Through the haze, I just made out a person seated at the widest control panel, twisted around to face me, one eye glowing.

Through the muffling fabric of my shirt, I said, “What’s on fire?” But as I moved closer, I could see the way the smoke rolled out from beneath the control panel. How the person did not move away from the danger, because their entire lower half trailed away in a thick tangle of wires to various locations around the booth.

This was a bot, hardwired into the station itself.

“One of my processors overheated,” the bot explained. “I am Static. Designation?”

“From trying to call Qpn-zee?” I asked.

“Designation?” it repeated.

I shrugged a little, never sure how to introduce myself. “I’m called the Wanderer.”

“Yeah, and I’m called the Operator,” said Static. It adjusted a knob and a whine I hadn’t noticed diminished. “Your real name?”

My mouth opened and closed. “I… don’t know.” I had never known.

Static narrowed its single eye at me. “You’re that Wanderer, then.”

I spread my hands, my shirt sliding off my nose. “That’s who you reached. Can we do something about this smoke?”

Static faced forward again, laughing a hard little laugh. “I didn’t ask you to help me. Only one person can do that.”

Stepping around an exposed pile of wires, I sidled toward the wall. “Qpn-zee?” I said. “Your signal got pretty far. Could be they’re just behind me.” I had noticed a window here covered with duct tape. Vinyl crinkled beneath my searching fingertips.

“How did you even hear me?” Static asked. It cut its gaze toward me just as I popped the window latch. “Hey, what are you-!”

I pushed the window outward and a gust blew in, stirring dust and smoke alike. Sunlight flooded the control booth, glinting off Static’s brushed metal face. It looked surprised at the fact of daylight.

I leaned my hip against the windowsill. “I don’t know much about digital machinery,” I explained, “but I do know you have to keep it cool. Can’t do that with everything boarded up.”

“I couldn’t-” Static started. “After Qpn-zee left, I… I couldn’t do that.”

Dusting my hands, I said, “I know I can’t help you, like you said. But if I meet Qpn-zee in my wanderings, I’ll send them out here.” I picked my way back to the hallway. On my way, I paused to face Static. “In your broadcast… it sounds like you miss them.”

Static looked flabbergasted. At what I had done or the fact of me, I couldn’t tell. Then it sort of smiled with its one eye. “Yeah. I do.”

As I stepped outside, its ham radio voice called out. “Hey! What am I supposed to do if it rains?!”

I raised an arm, waving behind me. “I’d say this place could use a little moss.”

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The Hopeful Wanderer – A Summer Offering

In a wide-open field of long summer grass stood a lonesome table, covered in gray cloth and bearing a shallow wicker basket. A single shady tree overhung the table, inviting in the over-bright afternoon sunlight. Sweat beaded on the back of my neck and grass crunched beneath my feet as I approached. Behind me lay nothing; ahead, even more of the same. A gentle breeze carried to me the sweet scent of warm fruit.

At the table, I paused beneath the shade, allowing the sweat to dry from my hair. A clear vase of field flowers sat next to the wicker basket and inside the basket were a couple of muffins, cupped in brown wax paper and stuck in the middle with a bunch of raspberries still hanging from their stems. From my bag, I withdrew another of these and set it down next to the first two. No chairs were nearby and I remained standing, eyeing the tall elm tree.

Dark green leaves above rustled despite a lack of breeze. Wood groaned as one of the boughs stretched down, reaching with twiggy fingers and picking up the muffin I had offered. Branch and muffin retracted into the canopy and several crumbs fell to the grass to the sounds of munching.

“Thank you,” the elm tree whispered. “You may enter.”

Just past the table, the view of the empty field and open sky rippled. I put out a hand and slipped through the illusory sheen into a field of raspberry bushes. Their sweet scent hung on the air. Behind me, the table and the tree still stood, appearing faded, as if over-exposed to the sun. Ahead, blue mountains shimmered beyond the field. I set off toward these down a green, grassy lane, avoiding touching a single fruit along the way.

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The Hopeful Wanderer – The Memory Tree

They arrived as the full moon crested the horizon like an enormous gold coin. Silhouetted people in ones and twos materializing beneath the spreading limbs of the Memory Tree. Their outlines wavered and shimmered beneath the hazy moonbeams, solidifying as the night grew darker. I wasn’t the only person sitting beneath the boughs, so I wasn’t the only one with guests tonight. The living, strangers to me, sat or stood apart, awaiting the return of their own remembered loved ones, unconcerned with my presence.

All around me, my guests talked and laughed about times long gone. Some had already met each other through me, through previous events like this, but others introduced themselves for the first time. Eyes glinting and teeth flashing in the dark. I simply sat nearby and observed these friends long passed. They smiled or nodded at me, knowing their place here with us tonight meant they held a place in my heart.

The night grew longer and longer as the moon fled through the sky. The strangers nearby finished their visits and left, but we remained, for I could not visit the Memory Tree often. I opened drink after drink for us and grew dizzy as the twin suns began to pink the sky. With the oncoming morning, my guests wished me farewell and rained away into nothing.

Alone again, I lay on my back in the grass and the fading stars overhead spun and spun. I missed them all so much.

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