Do I Use a Passive Voice When Writing About Literature?

Writing is active, and so is its voice.
... Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images

The passive voice in writing is the reverse of the active voice; it takes the object of the sentence -- sometimes the direct or indirect object, sometimes the object of the preposition -- and makes it the subject. In any kind of writing, literary or otherwise, one should avoid this construction.

1 Why the Passive Voice Doesn't Work

A passive rendering of "I kissed her" makes "her" the subject: "She was kissed by me." This involves more verbiage and a clumsier structure; it's frankly a weaker sentence. Strunk and White, in their "Elements of Style," note in rule No. 11 in "Elementary Principles of Composition" that the active voice is "more direct and vigorous" and that a passive is "less direct, less bold, less concise." Active voice "makes for forcible writing."

Vocabulary Builder

2 Literature Remains Active

In writing about literature, this rule holds true; keeping in mind the need for the "literary present" in tense, one always writes "Hamlet kills Polonius" rather than the weaker "Polonius is killed by Hamlet." In "On Writing," Stephen King -- certainly an authority on writing literature -- denigrates passives, calling them "weak, circuitous and frequently torturous ... [only] timid writers like them [since] the passive voice is safe." Safe, in King's view, equals wrong.

3 Rare Passive Exceptions

Strunk notes a few rare exceptions: writers can use the passive voice when referring to a generalized category, transforming a sentence such as "Schiller's poetry arouses little esteem" into the passive "There is little esteem for Schiller's poetry." The active voice refers to the poetry; the passive refers to its lack of esteem. "The need of making a particular word the subject of the sentence," says Strunk, "determines which voice should be used."

4 Stay Active

Despite the exceptions, Strunk, White and King characteristically champion the constant and habitual use of the active voice, particularly in writing about literature. Pieces of and about literature written for others are difficult enough to understand; the active voice gives the reader needed help. To paraphrase King, the writer gives help; it is never "help is given by the writer."

Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.