An explanation of what constitutes the passive voice is too technical to fully cover—not that I would try anyway—but here is an example:
Passive: Passive writing is something to be avoided.
Active: Avoid passive writing.
Notice that the active version is both clearer and more concise. This is key.
If you, like me, have trouble spotting passive phrases when we prove our work, the good news is Word does a reasonably good job of finding them.
My early writing was consistently passive. I never knew this, however, until I turned on Word’s grammar checker. It irritated me on almost every sentence by proclaiming it as passive. After Word assaulted me for a couple of days, I resolved the problem by turning off the option to check for passive writing.
I resigned myself to accept that my writing style was passive, and I tried to shove the issue out of my mind. So I wrote for a couple of decades. When I became serious about improving my writing, I turned the option back on. Yikes!
At first, I corrected everything Word flagged as passive. Sometimes this was easy, and the edited version was better, both clearer and more concise, as in the above example. Other times, the reworked section became more verbose, clunky, or lost clarity. I felt the edits didn’t make my writing better but worse—because it was.
Now, I’ve settled into a middle ground. If I can make the sentence cleaner and clearer by removing the passive voice, I gladly do so. However, if removing the passive voice obscures meaning or increases the word count, I’m content to retain the passive construct. This was hard for me to accept: Sometimes we need to keep a passive phrase if we want to clearly communicate.
Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is an author, blogger, and publisher with over 30 years of writing and publishing experience. Check out his book The Successful Author for insider tips and insights.