One of the most talked-over pieces of advice, especially for beginning writers, is that you should ‘avoid passive voice, and use active voice whenever possible.’
But what does that mean?
And is it true that we should never, ever use passive voice?
In this article, we’re going to talk about what passive and active voice are, how they’re used in writing, give you some examples, and teach you how to utilize each for whatever you need them for–these tips will be perfect whether you’re a fiction author, nonfiction author, or even just a college student looking to improve your papers.
So, first thing’s first.
What is Active Voice?
Active voice is when the subject of a sentence does the action described. It’s generally much clearer, more concise, and direct than passive voice–active voice has direction, drive, and intent.
When reading active voice, you’re generally avoiding the word ‘be’ (and all its conjugations). Remember when your high school teacher took off five points every time you used a ‘be’ verb? Just me? Well, anyway, there was a pretty good reason for it. Learning to write in active voice early on will help you knock your tone and style out of the park, since you won’t be struggling under the weight of extra clauses.
Let me give you a few examples, so you’ve got a clearer idea of what I’m talking about.
Examples of Active Voice
Mark kicks the ball to Anthony.
The above sentence is a straightforward example of active voice. Mark, the subject, is performing the verb, which is kick. We also have the object of that action, Anthony, but for active voice, we’re really only worried about our subject performing our verb.
Nervous about his absence, Jenny called Nick’s cell phone.
We don’t necessarily have to start a sentence with our subject to write in active voice. Above, we’ve got a dependent clause (nervous about his absence), which sets the scene for our action. Then, notice we have the same setup–Jenny, our subject, performing the verb.
I thought I could go to the movies, but I didn’t have enough money.
Here’s a little complex sentence for you–here, we have the subject “I” performing the verb “thought.”
Pop quiz! Which of the below sentences is in active voice?
There were snakes living in the riverbank.
Snakes liked to nest in the riverbank.
Did you guess the second one? If so, you’re correct!
We’ll talk more about how to make your passive sentences active in a minute.
When should we use active voice?
All the time! Seriously.
Active voice is stronger, it’s clearer, and it forces you to look for a verb to drive your action. Check out that pop quiz I gave you–do you see how ‘liked to nest’ is a little more flavorful than ‘there were snakes living?’ Neither of them is grammatically incorrect, but one of them is a little stronger.
Active voice makes you clear up the extra words bogging down your sentences, which means you’ll be able to focus on your word choice and really hone your style. Again, I wouldn’t say that snake sentence is incredible groundbreaking, but it’s got a little more style than its passive version.
Here’s a few specific places where active voice becomes very important:
Fight scenes need to be fast, descriptive, and crisp. You’ve got no space to waste in a fight sequence, so it’s especially important that your language is clear. Readers might get confused by an excessively wordy or indirect scene. For example:
PASSIVE: Christopher was hitting Robin in the chest. Robin was trying to dodge the hit, so he went to sweep Christopher’s legs out from underneath him. There was sweat on his forehead from the effort.
ACTIVE: Christopher hit Robin in the chest. Robin ducked, sticking his leg out to sweep Christopher’s legs. Sweat blurred his vision.
As I mentioned earlier, you’ll want to mostly rely on active voice when you write anything, ever. So it follows that your book’s narrative voice should also be active. Some situations call for passive voice, and we’ll talk about those later, but it’s safe to say that generally, you need a real good reason to make your sentences weaker.
Active voice becomes especially important when it comes to description and exposition. Working through an exposition-heavy chunk of any book is hard on its own (and you should absolutely avoid it, active voice or no, but sometimes it happens), and it’s made way harder by dull, indirect prose.
Description also sparkles when set in active voice. Let’s have another example:
PASSIVE: There were chandeliers shining above the dining room table, which was glossy with polish. The guests were seated at opposite ends, and they were wearing ornate gowns dripping with extravagant lace.
ACTIVE: Chandeliers shone above the glossy dining room table. Guests sat at opposite ends, their ornate gowns dripping with extravagant lace.
See how without changing the words I used, active voice cleaned it up and made it shine (no pun intended)?
What is Passive Voice?
Okay, so, we’ve talked a lot about active voice. But what is passive voice, really? Sometimes new writers understand they need to make their sentences clearer, but they’re still not sure what passive voice is, and you can’t avoid it if you don’t know what it is!
In passive voice, the subject is the recipient of the action.
Remember how we said that in an active voice, the subject performs the verb? In passive voice, the subject receives the verb. The subject isn’t causing the action–they’re just waiting for the action to come along and get them.
Examples of Passive Voice
The ball was kicked by Mark.
We have the object Mark is kicking (the ball), and we have the verb (kicked). But Mark is way at the end of the sentence, waiting for the action to come get him. This disconnects the reader from the action, since we don’t know who’s actually doing it. Passive voice often puts the subject further away from the verb.
I was thinking I could go to the movies, but I didn’t have enough money.
Here, ‘thinking’ and ‘I’ are still pretty close together. But they could be closer! ‘Thought’ is shorter, and it’s more direct, so it’s a better choice here.
Rain is falling on the sidewalk.
One common thing you’ll see in passive voice is that pesky ‘be’ verb clogging up our action. It’s almost always right between the subject and the verb, just delaying that good, stronger verb.
When should we use passive voice?
It’s not really as simple as always avoiding passive voice and always choosing active voice. It’s possible that you might need passive voice in your writing–it’s just that it’s better to actively (ha, ha) choose it, rather than unintentionally make your sentences indirect.
So, when might we use passive voice on purpose?
If you need to impart emotional distance or some kind of a traumatic event to the reader, passive voice can help you out. Because it’s a bit more numb and lifeless than its active counterpart, it can pack a punch if you use it sparingly.
Be careful with this, though–even if passive voice does create distance, and you can sometimes use that distance to your advantage, you still don’t want entire passages written in passive voice just for the vibes. Use it sparingly, and make sure that sentence wouldn’t be a little more impactful if the subject were steering.
For example, if you were writing a tragedy:
ACTIVE: She left by sunrise.
PASSIVE: By sunrise, she was gone.
Neither is wrong! But pick the one you use for a reason.
Here’s something that’ll change the way you read and write business emails forever. When you want to write a sentence and avoid specifying blame, it’s pretty convenient to flip the sentence into passive voice. For example:
ACTIVE: You stole cookies from the jar downstairs.
PASSIVE: Cookies were stolen from the jar downstairs.
Now, all of a sudden, we’re not saying who might or might not have stolen the cookies.
This can be useful when you’re giving advice (“there were a few typos in this manuscript” is a little softer than “you made a few typos in this manuscript”), and you’ll see it with business transactions all the time (“There was an issue with your order” instead of “we made a mistake with your order”).
This is also great for leaving out information. “The woman who lived here was killed.” By who? We don’t know! It’s in passive voice.
There’s Just No Other Way
Sometimes, the sentence would just be worse if you tried to make it active. It might also ruin the tone, especially in dialogue. Someone would definitely say “We’re interested in renting this apartment,” but no one really says “This apartment interests me.” In that example, it’s because the subject ‘we’ is the primary focus of the sentence, not the apartment.
But really, there’s not a hard rule for this. If you’ve got a sentence in passive voice, try to put in active voice. If it’s not working, and the most clear way to deliver the information is to keep it passive, then that’s fine! Remember, passive isn’t grammatically incorrect, and sometimes you’ll need it.
Following a Subject
Sometimes, we want to keep a certain subject the focus of our sentence. This was the case in that apartment example last time—the subject ‘we’ was the focus, so passive voice made sense there.
If you had a story about Carly and her friends going to dinner, you might write “Carly and her friends were waited on by a man with a ridiculous bow tie” to keep the focus on the gals. However, you can usually flip these sentences, too, for clarity, so just do a double-check to make sure passive voice is the option that reads more easily.
How to Transform Passive Voice to Active Voice
Alright! Now it’s time to really hammer home what we’ve learned. If you’ve got a sentence in passive voice, how do you make it active?
As we’ve seen in our earlier examples, you want to put the action as close to the subject as possible. Remember: the subject drives the action, not the other way around.
Let’s take a look at this sentence:
PASSIVE: Josie and her kids were waiting by the dock, and it was raining pretty hard.
First, identify the subject. Here, it’s Josie and her kids. Next, figure out what our action is–here, it’s waiting.
Now, we want to cut out all the extra stuff between them and get rid of the gerund on that verb.
ACTIVE: Josie and her kids waited by the dock, and it was raining pretty hard.
Better! Let’s look at the second part of that sentence. ‘It was raining pretty hard’ is still in passive voice, and we can make it crisper. We want to reword this to make it more active, and we also want to keep the writing natural. Here’s a few ways we can adjust ‘it was raining pretty hard.’
Josie and her kids waited by the dock while it rained.
In the pouring rain, Josie and her kids waited by the dock.
Josie and her kids waited by the dock, flimsy umbrellas barely shielding them from the downpour.
Changing it to active doesn’t mean, necessarily, that it has to be shorter. You can use description to convey information–notice that in that last example, I didn’t outright say that it was raining. And you can move things around to set your characters up for the rest of the sentence, like in the second example.
You’re ready to identify passive voice in your own writing and make those sentences active! Do you know any good uses of passive voice? Let us know in the comments!
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