I’ll be honest – when writing a blog, the writing itself isn’t something that a lot of people think about. You focus on coming up with catchy post titles, creating attractive images, promoting on social media, and coming up with interesting content. But, the writing itself, the words that you use to convey your message, are often not thought about. Sure, you might go through and check for spelling mistakes and grammar errors if you have time, but usually that’s as far as people go in terms of editing.
But – there are a lot of things (beyond spelling and grammar) that you can do to strengthen your writing. One of my majors in school was Professional Writing and we spent hours going over pieces of writing, word by word, carefully considering each sentence and how we could improve it. Now I’m not saying you should spend hours writing every post, but there are a few things that you could keep in mind, which will start to automatically improve your writing over time. That’s why I’ve decided to start this Pro Writing series on The White Corner Creative – so I could share some of the things that I learned with you, for free.
There’s no system to this series – no order of importance or hierarchy – each post will just be one little tip that I learned to strengthen writing. I’m not saying I use all these tricks on my own writing all the time (because it would take me a week to write one post if that were true) but they are always in the back of my mind, and are just a few things you can consider if you’re looking to improve. In the blogging world, most writing out there is fine – so people don’t notice it. But if your writing is amazing – people will notice it.
What is the passive voice?
The passive voice is, well, saying something passively. Sentences can be either active (when the subject is performing the action) or passive (when the subject is having an action performed upon them). There is nothing grammatically wrong with using the passive, but when you can say the same thing using an active voice, you should. It will make your sentence and your writing stronger.
The car hit the dog. This is an active sentence.
The dog was hit by the car. This is a passive sentence.
In an active sentence there is an action (verb), something performing that action (subject), and what that action is happening to (object). In the first sentence the subject is the car, and it is acting upon the dog, so the sentence is active. A passive sentence has the same components, but the sentence itself is not active because the subject is not acting, they are being acted upon by something else. In the second sentence the subject is now the dog, and she is being acted upon by the car so the sentence is passive.
When should I use the passive voice?
Now, let’s go back to the first example I used with the dog and the car. This is an ironic example, because in most cases – you would use the passive and say “The dog was hit by the car”. You wouldn’t go to work the day after your dog died and tell people “A car hit her”. You would say “She was hit by a car.”
Why do you say this? Well, because your dog is the victim. Your dog is the part of the sentence you know most about, the action happened to her, and the car is not important to you. “Foxxy was hit by a car” makes Foxxy the focus of the sentence, and lets people know that she was the victim. It also leaves any anger out of the sentence, since most of the time dogs getting hit by cars is the fault of the dog – and just an unhappy scenario for the driver. If you were to say “A car hit Foxxy” it sounds as though you’re putting blame on the driver – maybe you’re even angry at them.
Now, let’s take a similar scenario involving hitting again. If you went to work with a black eye the day after a fight with a coworker and your boss asked you what happened, you wouldn’t say “I was punched in the face by Bob” you would say “Bob punched me in the face”. That is because you want to put focus on the action itself and Bob, the aggressor, the one who hit you. Maybe if you had got in a fight with a good friend and you didn’t want to put any blame on them you would say “I was punched in the face”, because then you’d want to avoid placing blame.
Look at these two scenarios side by side:
What happened to your dog? She was hit by a car.
What happened to your face? Bob punched me.
You wouldn’t say “a car hit her” and you wouldn’t say “I was punched by Bob.” Both passive and active have their appropriate uses, and both can make your writing stronger when used properly.
Passive writing is used strategically in things like contracts and corporate or political writing – when no one wants to take responsibility or be held accountable. Rather than saying “The president was advised by the chief that a man was shot by police today” it would be a lot stronger and less complicated to say “The chief told the president that a police officer shot someone today” but that leaves responsibility on the chief and the police – and no one ever wants things to come back to them when they can avoid it.
What are passive verbs?
That is the the passive voice, but there is another form of passivity that I feel is worth mentioning. This is when you use a passive form of a verb, rather than the active form. The passive form of a verb means that ‘to be’ is actually the verb of the sentence, and you just add -ing onto the actual verb.
“I write novels.” is an active verb.
“I am writing a novel.” is a passive verb.
Rather than giving power to the verb of your sentence ‘write’ you are giving power to ‘to be’. We see ‘to be’ hundreds of times a day in its different forms (am, is, are, was, were), so that immediately makes your sentence weaker. Whenever you see a form of ‘to be’ in front of a verb, you should always stop to consider whether it is necessary. Then, edit or rearrange your sentence if appropriate to edit it out.
Update: This post has garnered a lot of mixed reactions, primarily because some people do not believe that passive verbs exist. And that’s okay. Passive voice is an accepted part of the English language, but passive verbs are often debated.
This is because of the present continuous verb tense. ‘I am writing’ is the present continuous verb tense. Obviously, sometimes this verb tense is necessary, for example if I’m trying to convey that I am writing right now, at this very moment, I am in the act of writing. This use of the tense is completely necessary and a vital part of the English language.
However, in some cases this verb tense is not necessary, and I believe it makes your writing weaker. For example, if I was at a cocktail party and someone asked what I do for a living. I could either say ‘I’m writing a novel’ or ‘I write novels’. You see that both convey the same thing, that you write novels, but they are worded differently and, in my opinion, one is stronger.
So how do I get rid of it?
Though passive voice and passive verbs are useful sometimes, most of the time they weaken your writing. The examples above are very obvious so that we could think about passivity at a surface level, but most of the time it is lurking in our writing and we don’t even know. Like right there – I did it without even knowing. Do you see it? “…it is lurking in our writing…” That is a passive verb. A stronger sentence with an active verb would have been “…it lurks in our writing…” You can probably already hear how much stronger the sentence sounds. With the verb ‘lurks’ powering your sentence, you can almost see the ‘passive voice’ crouching in the corner ready to pounce.
When you find a sentence that you have used the passive voice or a passive verb in, you just need to narrow down the verb where the passive exists, and change it to an active form. Sometimes you will find that the sentence is actually already using the correct verb, and changing it would not make sense or make the sentence any stronger, in which case you should leave it alone. In other cases you’ll find that changing the verb or structure of the sentence will in fact make your writing stronger.
Take a post that you’ve already published and read through it. To spot passive voice and passive verbs, I think the easiest strategy is to find all the instances of ‘to be’, and circle them. Some will be passive verbs, some will be passive voice, and some might be both. Then, go through each of the instances one by one. Decide whether the ‘to be’ is necessary, or whether there is a stronger way to write the sentence. If you like the way the piece sounds once you are done, go back in and update the post – and if you really like how it sounds, start applying this strategy to every new piece of writing.
By the way – no one is perfect, and passive voice and verbs are hard to spot. I miss them all the time. Most of the time I’m just too lazy to look, but I really do believe it’s beneficial. Case and point: before I went back and edited it, the title of this post was: “Professional Writing: Passive Voice and how it is weakening your writing”. Can you spot the passive verb?