Shoot for the Stars Tip #1: Use Passive Voice … Occasionally

We’re shooting for the stars by adding some great stuff into our writing.

Shoot for the Stars Tip #2: Make Dialogue Count

Last week, I shared with you 12 Lazy Writing Habits to Break.

Once you’ve subtracted the bad stuff, it’s time to shoot for the stars and start adding some things to your writing. Over the next six weeks, I’m going to share six of the missing ingredients that can help you take your prose to the next level.

Here’s tip number one:

Shoot for the Stars Tip #1: Use Passive Voice … Occasionally

Like “show don’t tell,” the prohibition against passive voice is considered one of the most basic rules of writing. Also like “show don’t tell,” there’s a good reason the rule came to be: in general, writing in the passive voice is not as powerful as writing in a direct voice. It’s much more powerful and evocative to say, “My brother John murdered Sheila,” than it is to say, “Sheila was murdered.” The second sentence is tragic, but think of all the things the first sentence evokes beyond that tragedy. But this isn’t always the case. Neither “show don’t tell” nor the rule against using passive voice is absolute.

I know this is controversial, but I’m here to tell you there is a time and a place to use passive voice. Use passive voice when you want to place emphasis on the thing being done (the action) or on the object of the sentence (the person or thing being acted upon) versus placing emphasis on the subject (the person or thing doing the acting).

In my essay “Growing an Avocado Tree from Seed,” I wrote, “There was a profusion of oleander … which we were warned not to touch ….” I intentionally used passive voice and left out the subject. Could I have written something like, “Our mom warned us not to touch the oleander?” or, “… which our mom warned us not to touch?” I could have, but that wasn’t the point of the sentence, and it wasn’t important to the sentence.

I didn’t want to emphasize the person who warned us. I was writing about plants and growing up, and in this sentence, I wanted to emphasize the warning (the action) and me and my siblings (the objects). That was the point of the sentence. It doesn’t matter who warned us. I don’t even remember who warned us. It was probably my mother, but it might just as easily have been my father or one of my grandparents or a neighbor or one of the kids we played with in the neighborhood. A half dozen or more people might have warned me oleander was poisonous over the course of my childhood.

When you start going that far afield to figure out how to include the subject of a sentence, it can muddy the point you are trying to make versus making it more clear.

Ninety-nine times out of one hundred, if an editor tells you to fix or change passive voice, you should. And one hundred percent of the time, if an editor tells you to fix anything, you need to strongly consider it at the very least. If something feels off to your editor, it will likely feel off to readers, too. If you decide to keep something, be prepared to give a good reason why that is something more than, “But I love it!” In my case, I decided that this was a proper use of the passive voice, and I decided it served my essay best.