You may have heard the term ‘passive voice’ or even been told not to use it, but why is the passive voice a bad idea and how do you fix it? In this article, you will learn the difference between active and passive voice, how to spot passive voice misuse (and how to fix it), and learn what to do if passive voice becomes a smoke-screen for other issues. At the end, there will also be a checklist to apply when editing your manuscript.
What Is Passive Voice?
Most people find it easier to spot the use of the passive voice in single examples and trickier when editing a whole manuscript; also, these things are about balance. It isn’t necessary to eliminate absolutely every example of the passive voice from your writing because there are some modes of writing that require it – more on that in a minute.
With these things in mind, let’s look at a simple example of passive voice. Take a look at these two versions of the same sentence. The first is written in an active voice, the second in a passive voice:
- Steve stole the sweets from the shop.
- The sweets were stolen from the shop by Steve.
Now try this exercise. Which aspects of the first sentence could I remove and have it still make sense? Yes, I could substitute different words until I had a new sentence: Betty ate the ice cream at the skatepark, for instance, but that’s not what I mean. Which phrase could I take off the original sentence, while still communicating the same information, albeit in less detail? Hopefully, you’ll agree that I could remove ‘from the shop’ but nothing else, otherwise I won’t have a sentence anymore. ‘Steve stole the sweets’ still makes sense.
What about the second sentence? How much can I cut and still end up with a sentence? I can take away much more this time. I could go for ‘The sweets were stolen from the shop’ or simply ‘The sweets were stolen.’ Look at my new sentences:
- Steve stole the sweets.
- The sweets were stolen.
What’s wrong with the second sentence? Identify that, and you’ll get to the nub of the issue: why the passive voice comes with an advisory warning.
Can you see the problem?
What Is Passive Voice Misuse?
The character or ‘person who acts’ – the subject – is missing from the second sentence. We no longer know who is responsible for stealing the sweets, the object of the sentence. Blame has been removed, or rather, as this is a post on the passive voice, I removed blame from sentence two.
This explains why passive voice isn’t simply a grammar problem you can solve by looking it up on Grammarly or another grammar-correction tool.
The ‘why’ – and in writing (as in life) it’s always good to look for the ‘why’ – is that when we use the passive voice, the acting subject is often missing. If you’re telling a story, your readers want to know about the acting subject, so they can stand in their shoes and see the world through their eyes. They can’t do that if the character is no longer the subject of the action.
Passive voice misuse is often unintentional and sometimes a hidden problem. Ever wondered why your reading group say they can’t connect with your characters? Perhaps passive voice is to blame.
So how do you edit your work to avoid passive voice? Place the acting subject at the beginning of the sentence or clause. In the case of our two examples, the sentence with Steve at the beginning works best. If you’re editing a sentence without an acting subject, like ‘the sweets were stolen’, then introduce one. By the way, if you don’t want your readers to know who stole the sweets, you’ll need to create a different action – “Sarah discovered her sweets were missing,” for example.
Let’s look at another reason for avoiding the passive voice. Both the example sentences lack detail, and both sentences are examples of ‘summary narration’, which is the opposite of ‘show don’t tell’, but – crucially – at least sentence one contains within it the possibility of ‘show not tell’. It’s much easier to edit ‘Steve stole the sweets’ than ‘the sweets were stolen’. I could change sentence one to ‘after sunset, Steve crept towards the sweetshop, carrying his torch,’ for example, or for my North American readers: ‘after sundown, Steve crept towards the candy store carrying his flashlight.’
But how would you instil some ‘show not tell’ into sentence two? ‘The sweets in the shop were crept towards after sunset’? That sentence feels all wrong. One way to tell that a sentence contains the passive voice when it shouldn’t is that it will be hard to turn it from summary narration into step-by-step ‘showing’. You might also have the reverse problem: you might be finding it hard to incorporate more showing and less telling because you’ve used the passive voice. If so, decide who is acting in any given section of your story, and place him or her centre stage.
I’ve mentioned that using the active voice matters when you’re telling a story, so novelists and short story writers in particular need to look out for it. But editing for active voice can also be useful in nonfiction and poetry.
Let’s look at nonfiction first.
You may have noticed that I’ve occasionally used the passive voice in this article, and other times I’ve put the acting subject (you, we or I) at the beginning of the sentence. If you’re writing something instructional (a recipe, a ‘how to’ book, this blog post) then you are likely to have to use the passive voice occasionally. But any time you tell a story in nonfiction – whether that’s a book-length project or a feature article – edit for the passive voice. The same rules apply.
In poetry, if you’ve included a speaker who’s present during the poem, then look out for the passive voice. It’s hard to change the active, ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ into the passive voice but imagine reading ‘lonely wandering like a cloud’ or ‘the hills and dales were wandered over’ instead. Arguably, it’s the ‘I’, or the active subject at the beginning of the first line of Wordsworth’s famous poem, that makes the line powerful. With the lyrical ‘I’ missing, it falls flat.
If you are editing a poem right now, and you’re stumped, try adding a lyrical ‘I’ as an experiment (you can blame me if it goes wrong). Put the speaker at the start of at least a couple of lines, like Wordsworth does, and see what happens. Not all poetry needs a lyrical ‘I’, of course, but it’s a fun writing technique to try if you get stuck.
When Is It OK To Use Passive Voice?
- When adopting an objective tone is important (ie a science report or legal document)
- When you don’t want the subject of the sentence to influence the message
- When you want to take yourself or the subject out of the equation and make the object the focus, such as when reprimanding someone. For example: ‘The shoes were on the table’ is less accusatory than ‘You left your shoes on the table.’
Changing Passive Voice To Active Voice
Did you learn to write up science experiments at school like this?
The magnesium was placed in the test tube. The hydrochloric acid was added using a pipette. A lit paper tab was used to ignite the oxygen. The results were observed and recorded, as follows.
Sometimes it’s hard to unlearn the way you were taught to write at school. The following passage describes the same thing, but this time I’ve used the active voice, and I’ve fictionalised:
Mr Burns was on fire today, literally. He got us to gather round at the front of the classroom and he poured this stuff – mag something – into a little bottle then he got another bottle out and told us never ever to touch it because it can make your whole mouth fall off and your hair fall out or something and he mixed the two together and there was a brilliant white flame and an explosion and the next thing I remember is the sleeves of Mr Burns’ white coat being on fire, and Maize had aimed a fire extinguisher at him.
What’s the difference between the two? One is written in passive voice, appropriately for a science report, and one is written in the active voice, again appropriately for children’s fiction. But that’s not the only difference. The tone and the voice are different too. Stop for a moment and consider the following before using passive voice:
- What genre are you writing in?
- Point of view
- Target readership
How To Recognise And Eliminate Passive Voice
Changing from a passive to an active voice often means simply moving the acting subject to the beginning of a sentence. In the example I gave earlier, Steve was the subject and the sweets he stole were the object. The shop was contextual information.
But What If Passive Voice Itself Isn’t Your Biggest Issue?
A mistake I see some beginning fiction writers make is this: they’ll skip over the emotionally hard parts of a scene or avoid writing a difficult scene in its entirety, rather than using step-by-step narration, probably because it’s too painful to write. Sometimes they’ll make it seem impossible to turn these scenes into step-by-step narration because they’ve used the passive voice.
Here’s an example I made up:
The diary she had discovered in the attic turned out to be her mother’s and was duly searched for information that might lead to the solution of the case, but no information was forthcoming. Mavis found it made her feel very tired and weepy and, walking a stretch of the coastal path the next day, many memories flooded back to her.
Let’s imagine this was written by a would-be novelist who thinks they have a problem with the passive voice. Although sorting out the passive voice in this paragraph would help, the writer’s ‘real’ problem is that they’ve tried to skip the emotional aspects of the scene, discovering the diary in the attic, by summarising them instead. We could refer to this problem as skip-itis; the desire to skip a difficult or emotionally charged scene.
If the use of the passive voice is simply a way of summarising the information, it’s not the main problem. You’ll notice that this paragraph also lacks detail and contains little or no characterisation. If this writer described climbing up into the attic to find the old diary step-by-step, using detail and an extra 500 words or more, while focusing on the character, it would be almost impossible to use the passive voice.
The good news is that, as far as my made up would-be novelist is concerned, this example paragraph acts as a mini plan for the scene they’re going to write
Here are some tips to help you to solve this problem:
- Give yourself enough time to write the emotional or difficult scene.
- Build in extra breaks – don’t go straight from writing this scene to another task, even if you can only manage a five-minute walk or a cup of tea.
- Make a start. Begin with something easy, like a main character performing a simple action. In my example, this writer could have said: Mavis climbed the ladder into the attic. Put the character at the beginning of most of your sentences in the first draft.
- If in doubt, have your character perform an action or series of actions before you summarise or use dialogue or internal monologue. That’s because summary, dialogue and internal monologue (along with passive voice) can all be symptoms of skip-itis.
- Remember first drafts are meant to be rubbish. They get better every time you redraft. Don’t try to make the scene ‘good’, simply try to get your character from the beginning of the scene to the end.
Passive voice usually takes more words than active voice, so if you get a sense that you’re beating about the bush and taking longer to express an idea than you need to, see if passive voice is to blame.
Using the active voice clarifies the idea you’re trying to express, meaning you get to the point quicker and you can cut extra phrases along the way. If you’re unsure about what you’re trying to say in your writing, or lack confidence, you may have (subconsciously) added padding, extra words that hide the central idea. Changing from the passive to the active voice can be like shining a light on these wordy ‘padded’ sentences.
A Passive Voice Editing Checklist
Here’s a handy checklist to use when editing your creative writing and checking for passive voice:
- Have you used step-by-step narration when it’s needed? Is the action unfolding in front of us?
- Have you placed the acting subject (probably one of your main characters) at the start of your sentences or clauses, on the whole? Have you made them important by placing them centre stage?
- Have you skipped any of the emotionally difficult scenes by summarising?
- Could you make an idea clearer or use fewer words by switching to the active voice?
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