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Before I launch into this, I've perused these threads and they don't quite answer the specific question I have in mind:

When to keep the passive voice and when to remove it

When *should* I use passive voice?

I'm making decent progress on a story, and I tend to do my drafts in Microsoft Word and use Grammarly to get additional grammar checking as I go along. One of the features of these that I have been working on is active vs. passive voice, for which these tools are immensely helpful. I've found that I have gotten much better at writing in active voice, but there are times when I am certain that mangling a sentence to use active voice, as suggested by the tools, ruins the mood or feel of the scene.

Therein lies the real question: How peevish are editors about the use of passive voice in fiction, really?

I worry that I'm spending too much time agonizing over voice, when I should be spending more time just writing. (See: The "Rules" of Writing) Even if I just stop and start blasting out volumes of text, I might later blindly follow every voice suggestion to my detriment.

I find myself in need of advice from those who actually have experience. Therefore, I turn to you.

Thanks in advance.

And yes, I'm a first-time writer.

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Shouldn't it be generally quite easy to change between passive and active voice during later editing? After all, those changes are generally quite local; e.g. changing "He was hit by a stone" to "a stone hit him" (or vice versa) would not affect any surrounding text, as far as I can see. –  celtschk Jun 19 at 10:12
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4 Answers 4

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Passive voice is not exactly incorrect. There is no rule against. But your readers will usually put down a book filled with passive voice. A passive voice sentence is usually extremely boring. Is that what you want?

The problem isn't so much passive voice. The problem is really "weak sentences." It just so happens that 90+% of the time that you find a passive voice sentence it is also a weak sentence.

Weak sentences are only bad at release time, though. Weak sentences are great for writing time! Just finishing a novel is a lot of work and if you need to use weak sentences to get your story out, do it. Now that your story is out, fix the weak sentences in a revision.

Here is an example where I discuss that a sentence can be weak even after changing it from passive to active voice. http://jabrambarneck.com/2012/09/17/painting-away-passive-voice/

I was tired and sleepy.

Just changing the sentence to be active doesn't make it a good sentence:

I felt tired and sleepy.

Feeling tired, sleepiness overwhelmed me.

Both these have active verbs but they are both still weak sentences. After some analysis of the characters and setting, you should formulate a strong sentence that grabs the reader in a way that puts them in the story:

My heavy eyelids dropped involuntarily until I forced them back open. My lower back complained as I asked it to ache for a few minutes longer.

Every reader has one time or another had to fight to keep their eyes open; has had to ask their tired and aching body to stay awake longer than it should. So these sentences allow the reader to better identify with the story and the character.

If your story is filled with weak sentences, you will get rejection after rejection.

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Go with your gut. Quit worrying about voice. Get it down on paper, walk away, come back and revise it, find a beta or pay an editor. Let your reader worry about the passive voice for the first draft. Tell the person to keep an eye out for it, and if your reader comes back with "yeah, this part sounded egregious," you can cut it.

You're letting the perfect become the enemy of the good. Just write. Polish later.

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Thank you. In this specific context, what is a "beta"? –  Mike Hofer May 31 at 13:55
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@MikeHofer A beta is someone that proofreads your work for you, just like an editor but normally unpaid. –  Terri M. May 31 at 15:11
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@MikeHofer The etymology is probably from "beta tester" or the "beta release" of software. The beta tester (the alpha, or first, tester is the programmer) is the person who tries to use the software in every possible way to find any mistakes or bugs before it gets publicly distributed. A beta reader is someone who reads your work before it goes to any kind of editor, to help you see the obvious flaws. Sometimes the beta can be an editor, if you have a smart friend. –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 1 at 1:19
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Forget any rules you've heard about passive voice! Instead, learn exactly what is happening when you use a passive voice, and use it well. How do you learn? Through close reading! A good writer is able to predict the range of inferences stirred up in a reader by her sentences.

Here's an example:

The officer hit Jeff. --VS-- Jeff was hit by the officer.

The officer hit Jeff. - Without context the reader assumes the officer hit Jeff intentionally. - Emphasis on the officer's agency/power to act. - Emphasis that the officer acted and not someone else - The sentence reveals almost nothing about Jeff other than having been hit

Jeff was hit by the officer. - Unclear whether the hit was intentional. - Emphasis that Jeff was the one hit and not someone else. - Emphasis on the fact that the act happened (Jeff was hit) - Jeff loses agency in the world - The officer perhaps acted as a part of a larger system rather than as an individual

The key is to ensure the sets of inferences your sentence structures generate are the ones you want. In a story about police cruelty, you would probably write, "The officer hit Jeff." In a story in which Jeff is a powerless character, you might write, "Jeff was hit by the officer."

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I wasn't even aware of any rule saying to avoid passive voice. If there is, it is a rule to avoid.

Active and passive aren't narrative devices in the same way that first or third person narrators are. Active and passive are plain simple grammar and depend on the perspective from which you narrate an action.

Every action (expressed through a verb) has an agent (the person who does something), and a patient (the person he does it to). For example, a murderer (the agent) kills (the action) his victim (the patient).

Now your rule to tell everything in an active voice would make it completely impossible for you to tell the story of that murder from the perspective of the victim!

Not all protagonists are always active. Sometimes you need to tell the story from the perspective of someone having something happening to him. How would you do that without passive voice?

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