Most of the time, any teacher, book, or article that gives advice on how to improve one’s writing includes warnings about not using the passive voice. While I agree that writers should avoid the passive voice as a general rule, I think those who proffer this advice should include some other guidance as well. After all, there are numerous situations where the passive voice is useful and more appropriate than active voice.
Because the passive voice hides the subject of a sentence, it is helpful in situations where the author does not know who the subject of the sentence is. For instance, in a criminal trial how are the judge, jury, prosecution, and defense supposed to be able to communicate about the details of the trial when the person who committed the crime is still unidentified? “Person A was killed in the local jungle. Person A’s body was found two days after Person A disappeared on a hike in the tiger-infested jungle.” The passive voice “was killed” enables the person describing what happened to tell the story without knowing who or what killed Person A. In the second sentence, the storyteller could probably say who found the body, but as long as this information is irrelevant, the storyteller has no need to name a person. Using passive voice in this example situation helps the narration of facts and eliminates unnecessary information.
Passive voice is especially useful when one is writing about history. History is often like a courtroom, where no one knows all the details of what happened. By utilizing passive voice, a historian can tell a story even when certain information—the doer of an action—is missing.
The passive voice does not exist merely to trip up unwary writers. Neither is it part of the English language because it is meant to be used carelessly. Understanding how and when to use passive voice is important. Using passive voice is often a sign of laziness or carelessness, but in some ways automatically replacing passive voice with active voice can be just as lazy or careless. The general rule “using active voice is better than passive voice” should not become an absolute rule. Authors ought to be discerning, to consider which voice suits a sentence better, and to write with that voice intentionally.
Writing intentionally goes far beyond passive voice, though. The verbs, nouns, adjectives, and adverbs an author uses also matter. Repetition can be a powerful rhetorical device, tying together ideas or emphasizing important concepts. At the same time, repetition has the potential to weaken sentences and make them boring. Using the same word may be the sign of a great writer, or a careless one.
Authors should also note if they use boring words like “was,” “pretty,” or “thing” a lot, ask themselves why they are using these particular words, and consider whether there are better substitutes. For example, “Mary was tired and lay down on the bed” uses uninteresting verbs such as “was” and “lay down.” An alternative sentence includes vivid verbs that make the adjective “tired” unnecessary: “Mary slogged her way to the bed and tumbled into the pillows.” This example may be a bit dramatic, but it’s definitely more interesting than the first one. Carefulness and intentionality in choice of language can be the difference between a dull sentence and an interesting one.
Another way in which authors can write intentionally is by examining the beginnings and the lengths of sentences. Does every sentence begin with an article (a, an, or the) or a preposition (in, after, etc.)? Perhaps one should use a participle, infinitive, adjective, or adverb instead. Is each sentence short and choppy, or long and tedious? Count the number of words, and see if the sentences are close to the same length. In many cases, a variety of sentence lengths helps paragraphs flow smoothly. The length of a sentence can also help an author communicate an idea’s importance or a mood. Generally speaking, a short sentence has more power than a long sentence, and an author can use this power to emphasize a point. Further, a short sentence often conveys a sense of energy or agitation, and a long sentence conveys a sense of calm. Poems contain many examples of the effect line length (sentence length) has on the mood of the writing. Through sentence lengths, authors can control, at least in part, the mood their writing sets.
When I receive advice, particularly for improving my writing, I always appreciate tips for enacting the instructions. The following lists contain tools and methods which I find useful.
- Conduct a search for “by.” This preposition often indicates that a sentence is in the passive voice. Once one has identified passive voice, determine whether to leave it or make it active.
- Mark each verb in one’s paper. Find overused verbs, and vary them with synonyms. This same method applies to nouns, adjectives, and other types of words.
- Use the search feature to locate repeated words.
- Highlight individual sentences, check their word length, and compare the lengths of adjacent sentences. Practice using a wide variety of lengths.
- Use online dictionaries and a thesaurus or synonym finder to improve one’s choice of words. Also, in Microsoft Word, right-clicking on a word will bring up a menu that includes the button “Synonyms.” Mouse over this button, and a list of synonyms will pop up. This feature is often helpful for finding alternate words.
When revising one’s work that has been printed out:
- Mark verbs in sentences with a pen or highlighter. Vary the verbs.
- Circle sentence beginnings and identify the types of words (article, noun, verb, adjective, etc.) each one is. Vary the parts of speech that start one’s sentences.
- Read the paper aloud, write notes, and mark changes.
Whether a paper is on the computer or printed out, reading it once out loud is always a good practice. Simple mistakes and typos which one missed while reading silently become a lot more glaring when one is reading them aloud. In addition, one’s ear will catch problems which one’s eye will not. Reading a paper out loud will help one correct rough transitions and improve the wording of sentences.
After all these tips, writing intentionally may sound like a list of rules. Nonetheless, writing intentionally is more than a manual. It is a mindset. Becoming a careful writer takes practice, patience, and thought. One must be willing to invest time and care in writing. In the end, though, I hope budding authors will find that the results are worth the work, for writing intentionally can help one better understand and appreciate language, communicate more clearly, and create writings which are more enjoyable to compose and read.