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Johanna Rothman
Johanna consults, speaks, and writes about managing product development. She helps managers and leaders do reasonable things that work. You can read more of her writings at jrothman.com.

Writing Secret 3: Choose When to Use Passive Voice

Most of us writers start with bad advice, to write “formally.” We’re not supposed to talk to the reader. Or, we’re supposed to avoid stories.

Worse, we’re supposed to use passive voice.

That leads us to write like this:

  • <A person> will be missed.
  • Your work is appreciated.
  • This work needs to be undertaken.

Here’s what’s common in all of those sentences: All of them are “backwards” because we don’t know who’s speaking or doing the action. And they all use existential verbs.

Let me start with the “who’s speaking” problem.

Who Acts?

Here’s my question:

  • In “<A person> will be missed,” who does the missing? All of us? Me? You? Some other section of people?
  • In “Your work is appreciated,” who appreciates your work?
  • Worse, in “This work needs to be undertaken,” which specific people are supposed to undertake that work?

If we don’t know who, why would we miss, appreciate, or undertake? In a real sense, the sentences are backward we reversed the sentence. We have to go to the end to figure out how to frame the start.

(Note: Grammarly didn’t flag my original text, what I struck, as passive, but it sure felt that way to me. I left it in to show you how insidious passive can be.)

Instead, what if we said:

  • I will miss <the person>.
  • I appreciate you for that work.
  • I need you/your team to start and complete that work.

Each of these sentences brings the reader closer. You might feel as if it’s too close for you. That might be more about your comfort with the situation. Which is a different writing secret.

Next up is the existential verb problem.

What Are These Existential Verbs?

I named them that, because they’re:

  • Will be, to be, being
  • Is, are, was, were. Sometimes, with a “by”. For example, “The code was tested by the users.”

Think “do-be-do”. (Or, go listen to Frank Sinatra’s Strangers in the Night. With any luck, I made the link to start where he starts to sing that phrase. If not, go to approximately 2:17)

These verbs all refer to a state of existence—not an action. Someone with a better English degree probably named them something else. I call them existential verbs.

How close do you feel to the action in these two sentences:

  1. “I will miss so-and-so”
  2. In contrast, “So-and-so will be missed”

Which sentence makes you feel the missing as an emotion?

Passive voice is done to us. (See that example?) We don’t feel or appreciate or undertake work.

Why Is Passive Such a Problem?

I write to clarify my thinking. I share that thinking with you so we can have a conversation. (Sometimes in writing and sometimes in real-time speech.)

If I don’t clarify Who does What action, I make it difficult for you to decide what to do. Worse, you might fly right by those words.

I haven’t helped you integrate the information you might need.

What Can You Do?

You can decide what makes sense for you. Sometimes, I choose passive voice. Here’s an example:

Then, the code arrives as if it was thrown over the wall.

If you’ve ever been in a position where you waited for someone else to finish their work and you had no insight, you feel passive. I might choose to use the passive voice here.

You always have a choice. You’re the writer!

However, you might want to clarify your writing and reduce your passive voice. Especially if you have that passive habit.

Want to Build Your Writing Habits?

I’m offering my nonfiction Writing Workshop: Free Your Inner Writer again in Q4. That page has all the dates.

If you want to build your writing habits—habits that work for you, please join us.

You can choose what to make your readers feel when you choose passive or active voice. Yes, even in nonfiction, readers feel emotion. Imagine that!

Like this secret?  Want to use your growth mindset to improve your writing? Please join me in the Free Your Inner Writer Workshop.

This is part of an intermittent series of writing secrets.

Published on Java Code Geeks with permission by Johanna Rothman , partner at our JCG program. See the original article here: Writing Secret 3: Choose When to Use Passive Voice

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Pim Clieff
Pim Clieff
1 month ago

Thank you for your article! I’m a writer, but I want to master French to be able to write poems in this lovely language, and I hope your article will help me, even though I’ll use another language.

Andre Arsen
Andre Arsen
1 month ago

Actually, I’m not sure if you can use these tips in another language, but you can try. I don’t know French, so maybe it will work. I know that it would be a mess in German because that’s my second language. If you’re struggling with a platform to choose to master a foreign language, I highly recommend you try this one because you can talk with native speakers there, and I’m sure they can give you some tips on writing.