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Using the Passive Voice Isn’t Always an Editorial Horror Story

Yesterday, I posted my latest Author of the Month interview, in which I interviewed none other than… myself!

It was supposed to be a different Author of the Month, but due to simultaneous vacations – where neither of us had easy internet access – those plans fell through. So I went with Option B instead.

Which worked out since I literally just published my latest novel, Proving America, last month.

Now, to be sure, I’m exceptionally proud of Proving America. It took a ton of time, research and dealing with ridiculous publishing problems to get it out there. Plus, it really is just a great read about a soldier stuck in the oftentimes disastrous War of 1812.

How would you react as an untested soldier when both of your parents proved themselves in the last war and your country’s capital is at stake? That’s the conundrum Proving America explores, complete with accurate historical facts and figures guaranteed to blow your mind like a British Congreve rocket.

But that’s not why I’m mentioning it in this article.

It’s more that I noticed myself using the passive voice, sometimes unnecessarily, while composing the “interview.” And I found myself fixing those cases in the final draft.

So since using the passive voice is clearly on my brain, let’s discuss the matter in some (admittedly) small detail.

To be clear, when I talk about using the passive voice, I mean using “to be” verbs. This includes, “is, was, will be, am, are, were, and any contracted version (i.e., it’s, aren’t, etc.).

These words are greatly frowned upon in some circles. And, to be sure, they don’t always work as well as they could. Sometimes a more active verb should step up instead.

However, I don’t altogether advocate avoiding the passive voice. My personal belief is to know your writing rules and then evaluate each sentence to see whether the rules apply or not.

Oftentimes, they will. But sometimes, they won’t. And when it comes to using or not using the passive voice in particular? I’d say it’s more like a 50-50 shot.

This means that – contrary to what my English 201 professor taught me back at Messiah College – passive voice can be more:

  • Engaging

  • Eloquent

  • Effective.

It all depends on how it makes the sentence sound.

And, unfortunately, that really can and does change sentence to sentence.

For instance, take the Author of the Month introductory passage below, where passive voice examples are in red:

I recently watched an interview of a man who said he hated history as a kid. For that matter, he didn’t like it as a teen, as a college student, as a teacher or as a principle either.

Why not?

Well, as it turns out, he was learning it all wrong. And once he started learning it right, he was so fascinated and engaged by history that he turned it into his career.

That’s the whole point of July’s Author of the Month spotlight on Founding America book 3: Proving America. It’s to show how intriguing and educational and even entertaining history can be when taught the right way.

Honestly, in three out of four of those cases, using the passive voice seems perfectly acceptable to me. Which somewhat contradicts my 50-50 comment before.

(Then again, about 50% of the sentences would feature it that way.)

Even so, I would really only change “… he was so fascinated and engaged by history that he turned it into his career” to “… he found himself so fascinated and engaged by history that he turned it into his career.”

Why? Because, in that case, I want to emphasize the verb just as much as what the verb leads up to. And the passive voice can sometimes fade words into obscurity.

That’s really what it comes down to right there. What does using the passive voice or not using the passive voice say about your sentence?

Does it sound right? Does it sound natural? Does it sound unassuming or emphatic or whatever adjective you’re going for?

If the answer is yes, then using the passive voice is okay in my book… no matter how other editors might shoot me for saying such sacrilege “out loud.”

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