Editors Against Passive Voice

I’m prejudiced. Yes, I admit that I hate passive voice.Passive Voice Boot

Unfortunately, so many people out there just love passive voice. Leading the charge are academics and government workers. (I’m leaving out lawyers; that’s a totally hopeless verbal morass best ignored.)

Let me explain. Passive voice occurs when the thing or person a verb acts upon becomes the subject. We can usually tell it’s happening because a form of the verb to be with the past participle pops up:

The long, boring text in passive voice was read by the editor.

As an editor, I am obligated to try to convert writers to the active side. It’s a struggle. I tend to collapse in a heap after a long ordeal with passive voice, large clumps of my own hair peeking out through my clenched fingers, tears of frustration building in my eyes. (Is it possible for woman to end up looking like Perry White from the ’60s show Superman? I sure hope not!)

The problem is, we’re all programmed to think that writing in passive voice makes us sound “smart” since that is how all the mucky-mucks in academia write. If passive voice really were the “smart” way to write, we’d all read college textbooks for pleasure. (“The abnormal psychology book was read by me, and excitement was generated!”)

So many fall into the passive voice trap. One area is business writing where convoluted writing, along with jargon and trendy phrases (topics for another day and another tirade) can actually hurt the bottom line. No one in business has the time to decipher writing that seems to have stepped out of the 1700s where folks wrote in a form equivalent to a bad Latin translation.Time is money, and muddy, unclear writing causes confusion and mistakes.

Sure, sometimes we need to write in passive voice but only when the noun or pronoun taking the action is the important piece in the puzzle:

John F. Kennedy was shot in 1963.

How insidious is passive voice? When I was managing editor for a newspaper chain, I had one writer (who had a graduate degree, mind you) who consistently wrote in passive voice – for news stories! I constantly had to rewrite all that writer’s stories. Ticked me off big time!

“What’s the big deal?” you ask. “What’s so terribly wrong with sounding smart?”

It’s wrong because it’s selfish writing. People who are more concerned with sounding intelligent are full of themselves. We should write to clearly convey a message or a meaning. We write for the audience, not for ourselves. We should use passive voice only when necessary, not as the prevailing tone for all our writing.

Folks, use the active voice! It is so much more interesting and effective.


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