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WRITE: Frequently Made Errors–Overuse of Passive Voice

Posted by on May 18, 2010 in Passive Voice, Self-Editing | 2 comments

“It’s amazing to me how such seemingly minor changes can make such a big difference.” My friend’s comment came after she made some of the manuscript changes I suggested. I smiled because I knew she understood.

Minor changes often mark the difference between poor and good writing or good and great writing. My friend was teachable (as I wrote about in an earlier post). When I critiqued her work, she didn’t dissolve into tears, become defensive, or resist my instruction. Instead, she gleaned from my suggestions and applied them to her manuscript. Minor changes made a big difference.

What kind of minor changes do I mean? When I review another writer’s work, I try to give some general suggestions and also mark specific concerns or problems. Inexperienced writers make similar mistakes. More experienced writers know these well, because we’ve made them, too. We have these and many more in our arsenal of errors.

Over the next few “WRITE” posts, I’ll discuss a few Frequently Made Errors or FMEs. If you’re a writer, you may want to review your work to see which of these apply to your work. Minor changes can make a big difference.

Today’s FME: OVERUSE OF PASSIVE VOICE When I began to write professionally, I read somewhere that passive voice marked a writer as an amateur. I stripped anything I wrote of all passive forms. However, I’ve come to understand that in writing as in life, balance counts.

What’s passive voice? In a passive construction, the object of the action becomes the subject of the sentence. For example, which sounds better:

“The ball was hit hard by you” (passive) or
“You hit the ball hard” (active)?

You saw it. The active construction reads better and sounds stronger. In general, active voice makes your writing flow and helps your readers want to keep reading.

In another post, I’ll go over some ways to activate your writing and reduce the use of passive voice. Again, I don’t urge anyone to eliminate it altogether. Some events and people are or need to be. Attempts to avoid all passive constructions makes your writing sound forced and awkward.

For now, check samples of your work for passive voice. Watch first for forms of the verb “to be” (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been). Passive constructions don’t always use one of these words, but many of them do. If you can’t find passive voice, you can’t fix it.

Still unclear? Check this out:

“Ways to achieve that fix will be discussed in the next WRITE post.” (passive)
“I’ll discuss ways to achieve that fix in the next WRITE post.” (active)


  1. This is very helpful! I’ll be watching for future installments about FME’s.

  2. Thanks! I’ll try to make sure they’re helpful. You could always feed me some more ideas. . . 🙂

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