Engaging Prose is Active and Varied

To keep readers engaged with the text, use strong nouns and verbs to construct active sentences. Which isn’t to say every sentence must be in the active voice.

The passive voice is used only when appropriate.

Writers are forever being told to avoid the passive voice.

You see the problem.

book writing active voice
Illustration © Sergey Nivens • Fotolia

Sometimes, the passive voice is appropriate, such as when the person being told is more important than the person doing the telling.

One major problem, especially in critique groups, is a misunderstanding about what exactly passive voice is. Critique partners will circle every instance of was in a manuscript as if that were the problem.

Sometimes was is a problem, but usually it’s not a passive voice problem. It was raining is not passive voice. It’s just dull writing. Try rain poured down like a waterfall.

She was running out the door is not passive voice. It’s progressive tense, which I find is used far too often when the simple past tense is better. Try She ran out the door.

Passive voice is when the object of the verb is placed in the position of the subject of the sentence: Writers are forever being told… In this sentence, told is the verb, and writers is the object positioned as subject. I chose this construction not only to make a point about using the passive voice, but also because who does the telling is irrelevant to this discussion.

Even Strunk & White, who advise us to “Use the active voice,” also admit that this does not “mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.”

In his excellent book Garner’s Modern American Usage, Bryan Garner identifies seven occasions on which it is appropriate to use the passive voice:

  • When the actor is unimportant
  • When the actor is unknown
  • When you want to hide the actor’s identity
  • When you need to put the punch word at the end of the sentence
  • When the focus of the passage is on the thing being acted upon
  • When the passive simply sounds better

Yes, we should prefer the active voice, but there are times when it is appropriate to use the passive voice, and we need not bend our prose into pretzels to avoid it. If it takes you more than a minute to figure out how to recast a sentence from active to passive, it’s probably not worth the trouble.

Paragraph and sentence lengths are varied.

The reason editors advise varying your sentence and paragraph constructions is that having all your sentences the same length and all your paragraphs the same length is the written equivalent of speaking in a monotone. The reader may not be able to identify exactly why the prose is so difficult to read. They’ll just find it dull.

One of the poorest pieces of writing advice students learn in school is to avoid the one-sentence paragraph. This is clearly poppycock, yet many instructors insist upon it. But the one-sentence paragraph can be among the most effective. A single sentence, especially a short one, placed at the end of some longer paragraphs containing more complex sentences, carries a lot of punch.

Try it.


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1 Comment

  1. Excellent advice, as always.

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