Welcome to a post about [probably] the most misunderstood pair of phrases in the world of editing:
“Passive Voice” vs. “Boring Voice”
Passive Voice is about one thing, and one thing only: the relationship between a sentence’s subject and object.
Active structure: Tom sat on the chair.
Passive structure: The chair was sat upon by Tom.
In passive sentence structure, the object is being acted upon by the object, rather than the subject simply acting on the object.
Passive structure almost always involves some form of the verb “to be”, which includes forms like ‘was’ and ‘had been’. Which is also how “passive voice” is so often confused with “boring voice” — “Boring voice” is caused by repetitive use of the “to be” verbs like was, were, being, had been, even when the sentence structure is active.
Example of boring voice:
Tom was sitting by the window in a chair. Tom was looking out the window, thinking about what he was going to do. The situation was ugly; his choices were getting up, or sitting there all day. ‘Sitting there’ was the more attractive choice. Getting up was a lot more work.
In this example, almost every verb is ‘was’ or another form of ‘to be’.
Confusion between “passive voice” and “boring voice” comes from semantics; many authors and editors warn against passive voice because of the involvement of the word “was”, when what they really mean to warn against is “boring voice”.
Working with authors for almost twenty years, critiquing, editing and diving into slush piles — and even reading mountains of professionally edited published works — I see ‘boring voice’ all the time. Everyone who reads sees boring voice all the time, because it’s damned difficult and time-consuming to fix.
Authors who slip into boring voice are uniquely blind to the repetitive usage of ‘was’, ‘had been’, ‘were’, et al. These verbs form a path of least resistance while putting words on the page. And sure, the author’s meaning(s) are clear enough, but boring voice causes an uncomfortable repetitive cadence, and can often strip away what the reader needs to render the story in their heads. (I used to call this ‘hemorrhaging’ on the page; all the good stuff had bled away, leaving us a corpse to read.)
Disclaimer: I’m not saying no one should ever use ‘was’ or other forms of ‘to be’. Moderation in all things.
So. I hope that clears up any confusion about the difference between ‘passive voice’ and ‘boring voice’.
No one wants to be boring. Authors, pay attention to repetitive use of ‘was’. Beta readers and editors, help your authors watch out for repetitive use of ‘was’ and other forms of ‘to be’.