Passive Voice in Creative Writing

Stephen King is an ardent despiser of passive voice. In his book related to writing, On Writing, he specifically noted this point. Not only King, almost all writers regard passive voice as an indolent usage in writing. Passive voice can kill the charm of a piece of writing, by making the author look like a bull being ridden.

What is Passive Voice?

A normal sentence is said to be in active voice. Passive voice is a form of sentence, in which the object is given more importance than the subject. It’s possible to form passive voice for transitive verbs (verbs that take an object, like carry, read, purchase, etc.) Intransitive verbs (that don’t take an object such as walk, run, blink, etc.,) can’t have passive form.


Active: The boy rode a bike.
Passive: The bike was ridden by the boy.
Active: Mike carried all his luggage for two hours.
Passive: All of the luggage was carried by Mike for two hours.

Normally, people prefer to write only in active voice. The passive voice is even regarded by some to be grammatically wrong.

Misconceptions About Passive Voice

1. Passive voice is a grammatical error

Some people believe that passive voice is grammatical error and shouldn’t be used at all. This is wrong. Passive voice can be used in any written communication as long as it doesn’t confuse people.

If you use a word processor, usually the passive voice won’t be flagged as a grammatical error. Some word processors like MS Word flag passive sentences and suggest the active equivalent for replacement, but this is for better styling of the sentence, and not as a grammatical error.

2. It’s always stylistically bad to use passive voice

It’s not true either. Passive voice shouldn’t, however, be used whenever there is a possibility for an active equivalent. It should be used only when an active counterpart is far-fetched or unavailable.

For instance:

The rabid dog was captured and tied up in two hours’ time. (Here, we don’t know who captured the rabid dog and tied him up.)
Barack Obama was elected president after a tight time of campaigning. (It’s better to give importance to Mr. Obama here rather than people as in “People elected Mr. Barack Obama as president.”)

Convert sentences to passive voice whenever: the object is more important than the subject; or the subject is unknown or hazy.

3. ‘Be’ constitutes passive voice

Some people believe that ‘to be’ constitutes passive voice always. This is not true. Though ‘be’ is added to auxiliary verbs to form passive voice, it is not indication of passive voice at all.

For instance:

I helped him to be a better writer.
This sentence is not passive voice. However, this usage is highly despicable. Sentences involving ‘to be’ are stylistically poor.

Here is example when passive voice is formed with ‘be’:
The boy has been admitted to hospital due to fever.

In Creative Writing

Active voice tends to be always better and time-and-space-saving in creative writing. Writers recommend staying with active voice. Passive voice may seem a rather unnatural use of language due to the popularity of active voice. Hence, writing several sentences in passive voice can estrange your readers quickly. Another reason is that passive voice doesn’t help recognize the subject, and a sentence without a proper subject looks languid, especially in creative writing.

So, avoid passive voice whenever it is possible.

How to Spot and Avoid Passivity?

If you aren’t familiar with passive voice sentences, the easiest way to spot passive voice is understanding the meaning of the sentence. Is it expressed largely from the object’s (the element without any action) point of view than the subject’s? If it's object's, it is most probably a passive sentence. Extract the meaning of the sentence and express it normally.

Example: Mark was captured for several crimes.
The object is Mark, and the sentence is expressed in his point of view; the subject is unknown. So, rewrite the sentence as (with subject as ‘The Police’): The police captured Mark for several crimes.

2. Several people were tipped off on the imminent bomb blast.
Rewrite as:
They tipped several people off on the imminent bomb blast.


Make sure you rewrite as many passive sentences into active voice as possible. This will definitely help your writing a lot.

Related Entries:

Writing Style Perfection
Short Sentences Guidelines

Copyright © Lenin Nair 2008

3 Opinions:

  1. It 's awfully easy to fall into this "flabby" writing technique. Sometimes you have to use it, but wherever possible, I've learned not to, if there's nothing else I've learned as a writer. But if you find passive voice writing in a first draft, you can correct it. That's what first drafts are for!

    Anne Gilbert

  2. This is a particularly onerous trap for people who come to creative writing from a scientific writing background. "We randomized the subjects into three groups..." is almost always rendered as "The subjects were randomized...". Other examples abound. It's vexing to me to see constructs such as this occurring in my everyday creative writing.

    Sometimes, a tantrum is thrown when this is realized.

  3. I believe that using active voice in creative writing is a convention, and as such the 'rule' can be broken with powerful effect. Often in other languages that do not have a strict word order (e.g. Arabic, Latin), the most important word of the sentence comes first in order to have the strongest impact. Passive voice can effect that in English when writers use it strategically.

    About scientific writing: for a short time there was a debate in academic circles about shifting away from passive voice in technical writing (e.g. articles, lab reports). It came hard on the heels of the debate about "observer effects" -- but the debate died out. It's difficult to buck convention when the gate-keepers in the field got where they are by mastering those conventions.


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