Why is passive voice (and past progressive tense) “bad”?

First off, I have to put a disclaimer here because I tend to rope past progressive tense into passive voice, because they both rely on “to be” verbs a lot, and because I’m lazy. I’ll talk about them both separately for once.

1. Passive voice can lead to confusing sentences. In non-grammar jargon, passive voice often makes it so the “thing doing the stuff” comes later in the sentence than the stuff it was doing. It’s a click-bait sentence. ‘Want to know who this action is being done by? Keep reading to find out more!’ 

This can make scenes harder to seamlessly imagine. On occasion though, you’ll find a sentence might be easier to follow and understand when it is written in passive voice, it’s just much more rare.

2. Passive voice and past progressive tense is like telling a campfire story instead of letting the reader exist in the story. Now, this isn’t to say that some (or even many) readers can’t still connect and feel immersed in a passive voice story, but it’s still another barrier you’re making them cross, and certain readers just plain won’t be able to. Lets compare, using a less than perfectly written “you won’t believe what happened to me yesterday!” example:

Passive voice + past progressive tense (ie, “I’m telling you what happened to me in the past” voice.)

“I was walking down the street, when I was startled by a noise and had to turn. I was being barreled toward by a car. It was screeching and skidding and I was panicking.”

Active voice + regular old past tense (ie, “come live the story with me” voice.)

“I set off down the street, but a noise startled me, and I turned. A car barreled toward me, screeching as its tires skidded. I panicked.”

Granted, most writers don’t write that abruptly or casually for long periods of time, but even a few passive voice or past progressive tense clauses in the same paragraph, when repeated throughout an entire novel, can have a negative effect on the reader’s ability to fade into the story.

3. Passive voice and past progressive tense often use a lot of useless “to be” words. Usually the only reason to type “I was running” instead of “I ran” is if your word count is ridiculously low, and if your word count is that low, then you should really consider adding words that give the story more meaning instead of just making the sentences pointlessly longer.

Other things to think about:

Passive voice and past progressive tense slow descriptions. An area where a lot of otherwise very active voice writers fall into mounds of the clunky “to be” verbs is during descriptions. When descriptions are written like this, they often stop the story flat out to explain what a thing looks like and then press the play button again once that’s done. Challenging yourself to show the way something is without passive voice or past progressive tense is a great way to intertwine description with action, showing the reader their surroundings as the story continues to move forward. (Find more about writing descriptions here.)

Passive voice and past progressive tense are not the devil. Don’t kill yourself trying to remove every instance of them from your novel! The fewer you have, the better, but only up to a point. If you have a reason to keep a few in each chapter (whether that be for clarity, the sentence’s impact, or your own sanity) then keep them.

(Keep in mind, everything here about past progressive tense also applies to present progressive tense! Present tense does not make you safe from bad writing!)

Don’t forget to check out Bryn’s debut novel, Our Bloody Pearl

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