Passive writing is a common manuscript problem that can make a story seem dull. It occurs when the subject of the sentence is not actively doing the action, but rather having the action done to them. This can make the writing feel weak and distant, and can make the story harder to follow. Using passive voice means a lot of cleanup work for your editor and higher costs for the author.
The best way to avoid passive writing is to use active voice. In active voice, the subject of the sentence is doing the action. For example, “The dog bit the boy,” uses active voice, while “The boy was bitten by the dog,” is written in passive voice. Active voice makes the writing more direct and lively, and makes it easier for the reader to follow the action.
Another way to avoid passive writing is to use strong verbs. Instead of using weak, generic verbs like “is,” “was,” or “were,” use verbs that are specific and descriptive. For example, instead of saying “The man was walking,” say “The man marched through the streets.” This not only makes the writing more interesting, but it also makes the action more vivid and immediate. Now we can see the character has some purpose as he makes his way down the boulevard.
Try to be specific with the nouns and pronouns while you’re at it. Instead of using vague or generic nouns and pronouns like “it” or “they,” be specific about who or what is doing the action. For example, instead of saying “It was decided,” say “The committee decided.” Now the writing is clear and helps the reader understand who is taking the action.
In addition, it’s important to avoid using passive constructions when describing an action. Instead of writing “The door was opened by him,” try “He opened the door.” This makes the writing direct and lively.
Is all passive voice use bad? Nope. It’s found often in Australian manuscripts. The publishers there are more open to it. For the American markets, it’s not as welcome.
Passive voice can also be used in dialogue, and it can even be useful to craft the style and cadence of how a particular character talks.
If you’re a newer author trying to get your manuscript published, it’s suggested you avoid using passive voice. Well-published authors with a following can play with this technique, but their publishing editor will probably try to get the passive polished out of the manuscript.