95% Reading ease, 100% Passive Voice! Ha!


Paul Wallis, Sydney Media JamIf there’s one thing writers hate, it’s being told how to write. The “no passive voice” crowd in particular are annoying.

Passive voice is defined by dictionary.com as “A verb is in the passive voice when the subject of the sentence is acted on by the verb. For example, in “The ball was thrown by the pitcher,” the ball (the subject) receives the action of the verb, and was thrown is in the passive voice.”

This is narrative form, telling a story. For some reason, passive voice is a big no-no by those who seem to think active voice is better. Active voice is defined as “When the verb of a sentence is in the active voice, the subject is doing the acting, as in the sentence “Kevin hit the ball.” Kevin (the subject of the sentence) acts in relation to the ball.”

OK, fascinating baseball analogies aside, this is “the cat sat on the mat” as the definition of good English usage. Well, is it? It’s dumbing down, in any language.

I’d love to say I did this deliberately, but it was accidental. I got 100% passive voice on the Flesch Readability Statistics, with 95% readability. Read ‘em and weep, guys:


To clarify: Passive voice, the big no-no, scores 95% on readability ease. Why? Because it works that well.  The Flesch scale is one of the standard definitions used for readability. It’s derived from a range of elements, including numbers of syllables in words.

My article was a business article, hence the blurring of the content, which was done under contract. The reading scale is 4.2, pretty low and the article was about dentistry. It was pretty straightforward, about dental services, in which cats don’t need to sit on mats. It was a simple narrative about those services.

(My highest grade so far is 18, post-grad level., which was done for Innocentive some years ago.)

Now the rant, fully justifiable in my not very humble opinion:

Great writers weren’t told how to write. Shakespeare didn’t have a style guide, and apparently few qualms about using passive voice. Imagine Brave New World, A Room of One’s Own or Candide in active voice only; hideous, cumbersome and out of step with the content.

Paul Wallis books, sydney media jam

This book is all about creative ideas. Nobody has yet died of reading it, but it’s a pretty tough call for those not familiar with working with ideas. “Passive voice”, eh?

The more restrictions you put on writing, the more restricted writing is likely to be in terms of expression abilities. If you want great writers, don’t lumber them with ridiculous rules and conventions. This is like “no consecutive fifths” as a no-no in music; it’s rubbish. There’s no good reason for not playing consecutive similar chords, just that theory.

Some expressions need to be beyond cats sitting on mats. Just because you’re simple minded, apparently to the point of obsession, doesn’t mean writers need to write simply to please you. Creative writing isn’t about you. Commercial writing is about delivering a message, not cheering up people with nothing better to do than bitch about usage.

Not all concepts are simple; many have to be qualified or otherwise explained in context with statements. Passive expressions convey wider meanings, far more so than active verbs.

How do you have a story without a narrative? No storyline, just current verbs?

The cat sat on the mat.

The mat did nothing.

We waited for more information.


Bill shot George.

George fell down.

We waited for more information.

Descriptive, isn’t it? Real attention-grabbers, packed with background and contexts, not. These things don’t even have situational contexts, unless someone has cheated and put in some narrative to explain things like who Bill and George might be.

No other info but this step by step, plodding slop. I can understand it from a writing perspective – It’s a great way of writing a 2000 page novel where 20 would do. It’s inefficient, but it looks like you’re really writing, when you could write crap like that in your sleep. You could get the cat to do it, in fact.

These dumb sentences are just continuums. They go as far as a specific action, and no further.

Point made? I think so.

Paul Wallis, Sydney Media Jam, Paul Wallis books

For those wondering – I’m still trying to publish on SMJ. Very irritating, but getting on top of it at last.