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Oct 15, 2020

How to Identify Passive Voice and Crush the “Myths”

By Pro-Critiquer: Pamela J.

One of my pet-peeves in writer’s groups and in critiques online are blanket statements such as “You use a lot of passive voice.” But when asked for specific examples, they either could not provide any, or they fell back on certain “myths” about passive voice. I’ve seen critiquers rewrite active voice sentences into passive voice, later admitting they didn’t understand what makes a sentence passive. I’ve also heard it called passive tense, which is incorrect.

What is passive voice? Or, for that matter, what is active voice? Both deal with placement of the subject and the verb in the sentence.

Active voice:  The subject comes before the verb (or action). The subject is performing the action

  - John (subject) painted (verb/action) the house (object).
  - John (subject) was painting (past continuous tense/verb) the house (object).

Passive voice:  The Verb (or action) comes before the subject. To identify passive sentences, look for any action and who performs it.

 -  The house (subject) was painted (verb/action) by John (no longer the subject, now a prepositional phrase).

Now what were those “myths” I mentioned earlier? 

Myth: Never use passive voice.  

Passive voice isn’t wrong. It’s not a grammatical error, it’s a style choice. Sometimes, it can be very useful, such as the way a particular character may talk, or as a method to create distance between the reader and the story. 

Myth: Never use “to be” verbs (such as was, were, being, am) 

Although using “to be” verbs (or any form) can weaken your writing, they are sometimes necessary, such as when the subject is not as important as the action.

Keep passive voice to a minimum, less than 25% is a good rule of thumb. Overuse of passive voice can make your writing look weak. If you are seeking representation from agents, or submitting to publishers, you would want your writing to read strong. 

As you can see, identifying passive voice takes time and before you mark the text as passive, be sure you understand why it is passive. Rewriting the sentence for the author is only helpful if done correctly. If you are unsure, add a comment that the sentence appears to be in passive voice and let the author make the change, if they agree.

Good luck! And happy writing and critiquing.  

About Pamela J.

I love helping writers improve the quality of their writing to create an immersive 'can't put it down' experience for their readers. I have been critiquing and editing fiction for authors since 2018 after transitioning from a thirty-year career as a marketing professional, and technical writer/editor in the healthcare and construction industries. I earned my bachelor's degree from Cal-State University in Long Beach. This year I completed two novels, one a historical family saga and the other a psychological suspense. Both are in the querying phase for traditional publishing. I have a third historical fantasy/time travel novel in the works. Since most publishers use The Chicago Manual of Style, that is the only style guide I follow for U.S. manuscripts. My critiques are honest, direct, but with sensitivity, and I try to show examples where possible. Communication is key. If you don't understand a comment, please let me know. Your satisfaction is important.

My favorite genre is historical fiction (Tudor period, 18th-early 20th century Europe and America, particularly) but I enjoy many others. See my list. I am open to adult, young adult, and upper middle grade fiction. 

Favorite authors: Diana Gabaldon, Deborah Harkness, Philippa Gregory, Michael Crichton, Dan Brown, James A. Michener, J.K. Rowling. 

Favorite Books: The All Souls Trilogy, The White Queen, The Good Earth, The Thorn Birds, Harry Potter Series, The DaVinci Code, Rebecca, Jurassic Park Trilogy 

Please no erotica, graphic violence or war stories. I look forward to working with you.