Could you use the passive voice when you write nonfiction? Should you?
Ah, yes, the passive voice. The bane of every editor’s existence. The thing that makes writing coaches shudder. But why is this? Why do writers so often hear that they should avoid the passive voice like the plague? Is there really no room for it? There IS room for passive voice. There are reasons — four biggies —to use passive voice when you write nonfiction. I’ll get to those in a moment, but first let’s visit active voice and some of the reasons passive voice gets a bad rap.
For the most part, we talk – and write – in the active voice. In other words, we construct our sentences in this order: subject, verb, object. For example: Michael talks to Mandy. Michael is the subject. He’s the person doing the action. The action is the verb, or the verb phrase in this case: talks to. In the active voice, the emphasis falls on Michael. Mandy is the object: the person on the receiving end of the action. It’s clear, simple and straight-forward. You might be interested in checking out our post on active voice.
If we write the sentence in the passive voice, we change the order to have the subject first and the object last: Mandy is talked to by Michael. This not only makes for a wordier sentence but it also changes the nuance. In the passive voice, the emphasis falls on Mandy. She is still the passive recipient of the action, only now we emphasize this fact.
Critics of Passive Voice
In recent years, this emphasis on the person being done to rather than the person doing has come under fire with regards to describing violence, especially gender violence. Numerous studies have found that we tend to use the passive voice when talking about acts of violence. For example: The student was attacked by three men. Critics of this way of describing violence say that we’re using the passive voice to reduce the crime to something less serious, that we are letting the attackers off the hook.See how your emotional reaction changes when you read the sentence this way: Three men attacked the student. The emphasis is now on the three men and what they did: attacking a student. They now seem more culpable, don’t they?
Benefits of Active Voice
This is one of the reasons why writing coaches and editors will encourage you to use the active voice in your writing: it provokes a stronger emotional reaction and draws you into the narrative. There are other benefits of using the active voice too:
- Your sentences are tighter, less wordy.
- It makes for clearer writing.
- It creates a sense of immediacy, so it improves the pacing of your writing.
The passive voice, in contrast:
- Creates distance between the reader and the narrative.
- Sentences become wordier and, if you’re not careful, even clumsy.
- Can be confusing, especially for readers who don’t speak English as their first language.
- Takes away the sense of urgency of the actions. In fact, it can make the writing seem bland and boring, as if it’s just repeating a series of facts.
Pros of Using Passive Voice
Is there room for the passive voice when you write nonfiction, though? Of course there is, and probably more so in non-fiction than in fiction. Whether or not to use the passive voice all depends on the message you’re trying to convey.Here are the four big reasons you might want to use the passive voice — and how they can help you when you write nonfiction.
1. Emphasizes the Action
Because we don’t emphasize the person responsible for the action, the action itself becomes more important in the reader’s mind. In fact, often when using the passive voice, we leave out the subject altogether. For example: The water was polluted. At this stage, it’s not important to the reader who was responsible for polluting the water. What is important is the pollution itself.
2. Creates a Sense of Anonymity
When we don’t know who performed the action, we tend to use the passive voice because it allows us to omit the subject. This comes in handy when we don’t want to reveal, just yet, who the guilty party is. It creates anonymity and also a sense of mystery. The water was polluted. By whom? With what?
3. Fosters Objectivity
Because the passive voice creates a sense of emotional distance between the reader and the narrative, the reader can become more objective about what he or she is reading. This is one of the main reasons why scientific reports are often written in the passive voice. While the journalism writing coaches encourage active writing, especially in broadcast, there are often legal reasons that underpin the choice of passive voice. For example: The water was polluted by a nearby mining operation. In Canada, where I was a journalist, the passive form of this statement is legally safer. A court hasn’t yet proven, or the mining company hasn’t yet claimed responsibility, that a specific mining company is culpable for the pollution in this body of water. The X mining operation polluted the nearby water. After all, when you read the sentence in the active voice, you feel almost ready to go picket at mining operation’s offices, don’t you?
4. Imbues Authority
If the active voice sounds more conversational, the passive voice sounds more formal. Readers tend to perceive this formality as more professional and more authoritative. It sounds like the author knows what he or she is talking about.
How Do You Decide?
When you’re considering whether or not, or when, to use the passive voice when you write nonfiction, ask yourself these questions:
- What is the message I want to convey?
- What do I want my readers to feel?
- Is there a reason I might want to create emotional distance?
- Do I want my readers to feel anything at all?
- Do I want to emphasize the action over the person/thing doing the action?
- Is there a benefit to my creating a sense of anonymity and mystery over who is taking the action?
- Do I want my writing to be more conversational, or more authoritative?
So, you’re now armed with the knowledge that there are, in fact, good reasons to choose to use passive voice when you write nonfiction. It’s tied to your objective for your book, who your reader is, what experience you want to create for them, and the impression you want to leave with them when they’re done.