Passive Voice Lacks Clarity and Direction

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The following, though not all, has some paraphrasing from Stephen King’s book on writing. You don’t want to read this book. It’s vulgar, explicit, and mostly unedifying. But he makes some good points on writing well.

(If you want a book on writing, read Strunk and White or Willam Zinsser. They will help you.)

A lot of writers write in the passive voice. In most cases, it’s a poor writing style, and I’m not sure how we come to write that way. It’s almost always better to write in the active voice.

Active voice writing has the action moving from the subject to the object. “The boy hit the ball.” The flow of the action advances from left to right, which releases the reader to keep moving along with your prose.

Passive voice halts and hiccups along the way, which is taxing to the reader. “The ball was hit by the boy.” It lacks confidence and direction. While there can be a false sense of humility attached to the passive voice writer, it’s a clunky and cumbersome style of communication, especially when over-done.

A single dandelion is interesting, and you may even be compelled to pick and blow on it. A yard full of dandelions is a nuance. The timid writer likes passive voice the way some spouses like passive partners. Passive voice is safe to them; there is no troublesome action to contend with in the sentence.

The timid writer will say, “The meeting will be held at seven-o’clock.” Don’t do that; don’t write that way. Stop it. Change your style. Throw out your chest, stick out your chin, and put that meeting in charge. Here you go, “The meeting is at seven.”

There!

Don’t you feel better?

It’s not that there is no place for the passive tense. Suppose a fellow dies in the kitchen, but his body ends up somewhere else. You might say, “The body was carried from the kitchen but was placed on the sofa.”

You can accept this, but you don’t have to like it.

The active voice sounds so much better: “Biff and Mable carried the body out of the kitchen and placed it on the sofa.”

Passive voice is weak, it’s circuitous, and it’s frequently torturous as well. Here is an example: “My first kiss will always be recalled by me as for how my romance with Mable was begun.”

Oh, my. Who threw up?

It’s better to say, “My romance with Mable began with our first kiss; I’ll never forget it.” Having two “with” words is too much so close together, but the active voice is more precise, directive, and natural on the eyes and easy on the mind. Notice how straightforward the thought is to understand.

Your reader should always be your first concern. If your reader is not of primary importance, your writing will bounce around in the private echo chamber of your imagination.

Translated: People will stop reading you.

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About RickThomasNet

Rick Thomas leads a training network for Christians to assist them in becoming more effective soul care providers. RickThomas.Net reaches people around the world through consulting, training, podcasting, writing, counseling, and speaking. In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology, and 1991 he received a BS in Education. In 1993 he was ordained into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s College in Santa Clarita, CA. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC). He also received certification from the International Association of Biblical Counselors (IABC). His organization is a training center for IABC.