Writers are often warned not to use passive voice and that active voice is better and preferred by readers. But what exactly is passive voice? (Hint: It has nothing to do with verb tense!) At Writer’s Relief, we know the best way to avoid grammar mistakes is to have all the facts. Here’s how to avoid using passive voice in your writing and sentence construction.
Avoid Passive Voice And Improve Your Writing
In passive voice, the subject of your sentence is being acted upon by the verb, rather than doing the action. The sentence’s subject becomes the receiver of the action.
Here’s an example of passive voice: The ball was caught by Shannon.
In this case, the subject of the sentence (the ball) is not performing any action; rather, the action of the sentence (catching the ball) is happening to them.
Let’s put that sentence into active voice: Shannon caught the ball.
With the active voice, your character is the subject and is front and center, catching the ball. Shannon saved the day and the team won the big game! But when you use passive voice, the urgency and immediacy are removed. There was a ball, and, oh yeah, Shannon caught it. Yawn.
Is Passive Voice Always Wrong?
Passive voice isn’t necessarily wrong—it’s just less concise and direct. From a purely technical standpoint, passive voice usually requires using more words than active voice, so your story will feel longer. And too many wordy, passive sentences might make your writing difficult for readers to follow.
Overusing passive voice will also result in your readers feeling distanced from the characters, since passive voice downplays who’s performing the action. The passive voice doesn’t let readers get to know characters or hear their voices. This is why avoiding passive voice is especially important if you have a first-person narrator.
4 Tips To Change Passive Voice To Active Voice
- Rewrite sentences. Check your sentences for passive voice one by one as you’re self-editing. When you come across passive voice, correct it! Ask yourself: How can I rearrange this so the main character is the active part of the sentence?
- Spot the verbs in your sentences. Here’s a simple trick to avoid using passive voice during the writing process: As you’re crafting your sentences, remain hyper-aware of the verbs you’re using. That way, you can make sure each verb has a subject actively attached to it!
- Stop thinking of passive voice as “more formal.” Some writers feel the passive voice sounds less colloquial and more proper. While this may have been true in classic writing, today’s editors and literary agents tend to prefer more conversational, emotionally driven writing that lets them feel close to your characters.
- Get to know your character better. Take the time to think about who your characters are: What’s important to them? What are their goals? How do their voices sound? Do they have specific mannerisms? Once you better understand their personality and motives, you’ll feel more comfortable writing about them with an active voice.
When To Use Passive Voice
Active voice is overwhelmingly preferred by readers—it’s easier to understand and makes them more invested in your character’s journey. However, every once in a while, you’ll want to use passive voice if the receiver of the action is inherently “more important” than the doer of the action.
Here’s an example: The Queen Mother was taken by an unknown kidnapper.
Using passive voice in this sentence ensures the reader gets the most important information first. Oh no! The Queen Mother! She’s more important than some lowlife kidnapper!
To avoid using passive voice, except when it truly benefits the story, it’s important to know the grammatical mechanics behind active and passive voices. By rewording your sentences to ensure the subject is performing the action and watching which verbs you use, you’ll be able to make your story more appealing to readers—and more likely to get an acceptance!
You’ll find more great grammar tips in this article: Writers: Get The Best Grammar Tips And Answers—Ask Writer’s Relief
Question: Do you write more in active or passive voice?