If you’ve taken English composition at any level, you’ve no doubt been exhorted by teachers to avoid passive voice as if it were a pox upon grammar.
See what I did there?
Yes, that first line is an example of passive voice: “you’ve…been exhorted by teachers.” This was a conscious composition choice on my part. Sure, I could have written, “Teachers exhort almost everyone who takes English composition classes to avoid passive voice as if it were a pox upon grammar.” That’s a nice sentence. It doesn’t sound quite as conversational to me as the passive construction, though. If I were talking to you face-to-face, I think I’d be more likely to express this sentiment in passive voice.
And that’s one of the reasons I’m going to preach today that passive voice is not necessarily the devil.
Valid Uses of Passive Voice in Content Writing
While I generally fall into the camp that prefers active voice over passive, I nonetheless recognize there are times when passive construction can serve a purpose in your content. Here are a few reasons (feel free to add your own in the comments) why you might legitimately use passive voice:
- When it sounds more conversational than active voice.
If you’re writing a piece that demands a conversational tone, you might want to include some passive constructions where it feels natural.
To make a bad day even worse, when I left work I discovered my car had been dented.
To make a bad day even worse, when I left work I discovered an unknown individual had dented my car.
- To position important information at the beginning of the sentence.
We all know a lot of online readers actually skim blog posts and web pages instead of reading every word. To effectively communicate with those readers, you can use passive voice constructions that push key information to the beginning of the sentence.
The hospital’s new mural was revealed by a team that included the CEO, the artist and several children from the pediatric oncology unit.
A team that included the CEO, the artist and several children from the pediatric oncology unit revealed the hospital’s new mural.
- When you want to slow down the piece’s pacing.
Pacing is a crucial element for reader engagement – and will be the topic of many Contentography posts to come. But suffice it to say – using very broad brushstrokes – that active voice speeds up the pace of a text and passive voice slows it down. So if you need to let the reader catch her breath, toss in some passive voice.
It was a busy Thursday. Amanda gulped down a gallon of coffee, spoke with investors and rushed off for a lunch meeting. Alan held a press conference. Lois rallied the sales staff. James posted flyers on every floor to promote the office holiday party.
By the end of the day, Michael felt as if he had been run over by a bus. His brain had been numbed by how many unnecessary meetings? Five? It was probably a new record, but then records were made to be broken.
As you read those two paragraphs, can you feel the shift in pacing from energetic to unhurried?
Passive Voice: Types of Content
You should use passive voice strategically in all types of content, with the possible exception of social media posts. Passive voice is anything but succinct.
Saying passive voice is “bad writing” is like saying potato chips are bad food. Everything in moderation, friends.
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