You may have heard that you should avoid using passive voice. Is this true? Well, yes, and no. Read on to see:

  • when you should avoid it,
  • when it's fine to use,
  • and even when it might be perfect for you,
  • and what you should use instead when the occasion demands it.

A few examples will be the easiest way to explain the difference between the active voice and passive voice.

It’s passive to say: The child was carried in John’s arms (Note the use of the word 'was'. That is always a clue to the presence of passive voice.)

Rather, for active voice say: John carried the child in his arms.

(Or even better, to avoid redundancy, you could simply say: John carried the child.)

Do you see how much more vibrant and energised the active example is? The other one kinda just limps along.

Another example: It was raining versus The rain poured down. Again, doesn’t the active voice statement just seem much more powerful?

As I said above, the passive voice typically uses the verb ‘is’ or ‘was’ which are weak verbs anyway. The active voice will use stronger verbs.

Another clue is that in the active voice, the subject of the sentence is the doer; in the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is the person or object who is done to.

When the Passive Voice is good to use:

Having said all that, judicious use of the passive voice can be powerful if you want to place the emphasis on the object of the sentence rather than the subject.

So, for example, if you said: It was decided that Steve should be executed, the readers' thoughts are automatically with Steve. They’re left to wonder who it is who wants to execute him (and that could provide a narrative hook, which provokes curiosity to keep them reading).

Another time you might avoid the active voice would be when it just doesn’t matter who is the subject of the sentence.

So you might say: It was believed that a bad Spring meant a good Summer, or It was rumoured that Janet murdered her husband.

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Now, I need to stress that not every, indeed not even most, uses of 'it is' and 'it was' need to be avoided. For example, it would be contrived and silly to try to rephrase, It was Sunday.

I do suggest though that when you are editing your story, do a search for every ‘it is’ and ‘it was’ and be ruthless about taking them out if necessary. If you do use the passive voice, do it deliberately and for effect, rather than through laziness or carelessness.

So, if you had something like: It was decided by the authorities that Steve should be executed, then that’s just a weak sentence and should be changed to the active form, i.e.: The authorities decided to execute Steve.