This post was originally published at Novelicious.com and is now at WritingTipsOasis.com. WritingTipsOasis.com acquired Novelicious.com in June 2022.
What is it and should you avoid it?
It's true that overuse of the passive voice generally spells lifeless, turgid prose and that you should aim to keep your writing as clear and direct as possible.
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So, let's begin by explaining what identifies a sentence as 'passive'. This is most easily done by example.
Here, we have a passive sentence:
The box was carried by Henry.
And, here it is in an active form:
Henry carried the box.
In the first sentence, the subject is the box. It is inanimate (naturally, enough; it's a box) and the action in the sentence is happening to it. It is, if you'll forgive me for hammering the point home, a passive player in the proceedings.
In the second sentence, however, the subject is Henry, and he is the one (quite literally in this case) carrying out the action.
If you read them out loud, you'll hear that the first sentence is longer and a little 'clunky' sounding. In isolation, it's not awful, but imagine a gaggle of passive sentences, clustered together. The effect would be stilted and needlessly verbose.While I don't think you should ban the passive voice from your repertoire (varying sentence structure for timing and effect is one of the many tools in the writer's kit), it is worth remembering that we often slip into it when we're feeling hesitant or fearful.
Which is why the advice to avoid it is so often given to beginning writers. When faced with the blank page, many of us start off with convoluted, passive sentences to make our work sound more formal, more like our idea of 'literature'.
It's totally understandable and nothing to worry about (that's what second drafts are for), and you'll probably find that you drop the passive voice unconsciously as you practice.
Just keep on writing as much and as freely as possible, and your natural voice (which will be much closer to the way in which you speak) will come through, killing off those (unnecessarily) passive sentences and bringing your prose to life.