The Passive Argument makes me Tense

Several months ago I had the pleasure of reading a book on writing by an American publisher that doesn’t negate the entire use of ‘passive’. For anyone who is saying, “Huh?” a somewhat humorous but an excellent example I’ve seen recently is this (sorry, I don’t know whom to attribute it to):

She was eaten by zombies.

Zombie ate her.

The first is passive, the second is not. American publishers (I can’t speak for non-US/UK countries as I’ve no experience) can be more selective about passive to the point of banning it altogether. Some, unfortunately, go to such lengths to avoid a single instance that they will rewrite whole paragraphs into awful stilted entanglements that are cringeworthy. British writers especially seem to have a hard time with this, probably because our rule on passive is simple: Don’t overuse but no need to avoid at all costs. British publishers don’t seem so worried about passive, and I know I’m not the only writer to never have passive sentences pointed out until I wrote for a US publisher.

It’s difficult to argue wrong or right because many publishers have a house-style and if they reject passive, they have the right; however, it’s to everyone’s detriment to rewrite the occasional use if to get the same information results in a sentence so convoluted it makes the reader wince.

Other forms argued with are ‘to be’ or ‘was’. Some publishers become known for ‘de-wasing’ work. I once read a submission guide taking this to extremes and stating the writer was to remove every instance of the word. Many writers consider was to be a throwaway word—one that passes through the ear and mind without calling too much attention. I’ve heard other British writers ponder what is so wrong with all forms of ‘to be’.

Passive can be used to great effect, in fiction and in life. Politicians and solicitors purposely use passive to deflect answering questions directly. One can find examples of passive in many famous poems that would have lost power had the authors written the passive out.

And don’t be confused (yes, be confused is passive). There is such a thing as passive ‘writing’. There is no such thing as passive ‘tense’ no matter who uses this term. A tense is a set of forms taken by a verb—the simple tenses being past, present, and future. There is passive writing or passive voice, but not tense.

Sometimes passive is superfluous or ‘gets by’ the writer during the draft, and it is worth checking and getting rid of a percentage. Fewer passive sentences increase the pace and that’s largely what a modern audience wants, so it’s at least understandable that publishers encourage minimum use.

2 thoughts on “The Passive Argument makes me Tense

  1. I gauge passive usage on whether or not it contributes positively to the overall flow of the story. Sometimes, getting inside a character’s head really requires use of passive voice, because that’s just how the character thinks/views the world. Other times, the use of passive voice is jarring and slows down the read. It’s like use of the word “that.” Sometimes it’s quite necessary. Other times, it’s just poor writing. The art comes in knowing the difference between the two.

  2. Definitely! Sadly, it’s not just writers who need to learn this. So do some publishers. Dialogue should never be perfect — I try much harder now to consider an individual’s dialect. We don’t all speak the same. Yet I’ve heard of publishers who want an entire work to be grammatically correct. I even heard of one who wouldn’t accept any contractions even in speech and how ridiculous is that? I knew a writer who struggled with a publisher who wanted EVERY instance of ‘was’ removed. The edited passages were nothing less than painful. I’ve some pieces of passive that read like poetry in some short works which I’d loath to change.

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