Prose: The ‘Dreaded’ Passive Voice

The passive voice was something of a mystery to me when I first began writing. Once I learned about it, panic consumed me like realising I’d not locked the front door while boarding a plane. Everything I’d written up to that point was riddled with it, dripping from sentences like phlegm.

“Why does it matter?”

It’s a question I often asked myself at the height of my frustrations. Unfortunately, it does matter; it matters a lot. And the reason’s simple: prose written in a passive voice is slow and heavy going and provokes nothing but boredom. It’s a sign of the lazy writer.

So I embarked upon a quest to defeat the passive voice, and below I’ll share the things I’ve learned, as well as covering the instances when it’s in fact, fine to use.

 

Active voice

Let’s begin with the easy one. A sentence which uses the active voice is one in which the subject of that sentence is performing an action (i.e. a verb). Such sentences are more direct and vigorous, and as William Strunk Jr. said in The Elements of Style (a must read), it “makes for forcible writing”. Examples of the active voice:

Layla                     fired                             the rifle.

(Subject)          (Verb/action)

Conchita ran away from the tarantula.

Emmanuel pulled back the curtain.

In each sentence, the subject (in these instances the person), is carrying out an action. Conchita ran, Layla fired, Emmanuel pulled. The verb, or the noun, follows immediately after the subject. That’s the rule. Remember it.

The subject isn’t restricted to just people. You could have animals or objects, like a car or a boat. Anything that performs an action.

             The boulder rolled down the hill.

 Keep this in mind: active voice = action.

 

Passive voice

Take a deep breath; here we go.

A sentence written in the passive voice is one in which the action is being done to the subject by something else. For example:

            The curtain was pulled back by Emmanuel.

            The rifle was fired by Layla.

In each of the above sentences, the subject (the curtain and rifle) is having the action done to it.

Notice how the passive versions add unnecessary words to each sentence. Not good. As Strunk says:

“A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

Notice too how much duller these sentences are. Never has the word ‘was’ seemed so evil. There’s a few more passive words to watch out for:

  • Been
  • Am
  • Be
  • Are
  • Was
  • To be
  • Were
  • Is
  • Are
  • Being

 

Ways to combat the passive voice

  • Re-structuring sentences. If you find yourself with a passive sentence featuring the words above, try restructuring it. Look to use a better verb, one that says everything you need to in just a word (they’re out there, somewhere, though sometimes it feels like the hunt for Atlantis). An excellent example from Strunk:

Passive:           There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.

Active:             Dead leaves covered the ground.

Twelve letters to just five.

Another thing to keep in mind when restructuring passive sentences is the subject of the sentence. An effective move is to insert a subject if a sentence is lacking one. When doing so, think of specifics. Specificity makes for more forcible, convincing writing. Another thing you could do is move the subject to the beginning of the sentence. So in the above example ‘dead leaves’ is moved to the beginning to become the subject. Another example courtesy of Brandon Sanderson:

Passive:            The duet was sung by Mary and Joe.

Active:             Mary and Joe sung the duet.

 

  • Combining shorter sentences. Another thing you can try is combining two short sentences into a long one to eradicate the passive word. For example:

Passive:         He walked across the street. It was wide, busy with traffic.

Active:           He walked across the wide street, busy with traffic.

 

 

When it’s fine to use the passive voice

Sometimes it’s necessary to use the passive voice, such as when you’re looking to slow the pace, reduce tension, or prolong narrative. Passive voice is also fine to use in dialogue. My day to day language is full of passive words. This is how people speak in reality, so the occasional passive word in your dialogue will give it a more genuine feel.

             “I was going to come over, but I wasn’t sure whether you were home.”

One question to ask yourself when constructing a sentence is whether the subject needs to act at all. For example: “Gideon is a doctor.” The subject, Gideon, isn’t doing anything in this sentence so there’s no need to use the active voice. Like in this one too: “The sofa was comfy.” Again, the sofa isn’t doing anything. So in such instances passive voice is fine to use. It’s a question of necessity. Does this sentence require the active voice?

 

Tools

Here’s a fine little creation I came across—a list of active verbs. Many thanks to Writers Helping Writers for this. You can download it here:

http://cdn.writershelpingwriters.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Active-Verbs-List.pdf

 


Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed it, why not stay in touch by subscribing to my mailing list? As well as staying up to date with more posts like this, you’ll be kept abreast of any news and articles I think you may find helpful, as well as any new resources I release. Speaking of resources, have you checked out my freebies? There are lists of publishersa free ebook on the craft of creative writing, and a list of book reviewers, and I hope to produce more to help you on your writing quest!

 

14 thoughts on “Prose: The ‘Dreaded’ Passive Voice”

  1. I definitely have a problem with using active voice in my writing, especially in that first draft. And then, when I cut it in the second, my word count plummets.

    But you’re right, active is so much better, I think especially in fantasy when we can sometimes get caught up in our story world and want to overly explain our creation.

    Thank you for the list of active verbs. I’ll put it to good use on my next re-write.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It is difficult to write about potential future events and avoid passive voice like one does when one writes a role playing game.
    The rule is baloney. The rule says that the way men speak is ok but the way women speak is not ok.
    Listen to conversations … women speak in the passive and men speak in the active. Not cool. Artificial rule made by some self appointed guardians of the English language.

    Like

  3. Great post! I also learned that active voice is subject plus verb equal direct object. In passive voice the direct object comes first. Here is an example I always look back on.

    Active voice- Harry helped Ron clean his bedroom.

    Harry is the subject. He’s helping Ron clean his bedroom. Bedroom is the direct object of the sentence.

    Passive voice- The bedroom was cleaned by Harry and Ron.

    Active Voice is so much better.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post Richie. I’ve been writing for years,but it”s always good to ask ourselves if we’re slipping up, as we do from time to time! (Called sloppy writing, Definitely not on!) Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Good points, Richie. However, I would like to point out that “Gideon is a doctor.” and “The sofa was comfy.” are actually active voice. The subjects are “being” something, which means the subject is doing the action. (See Strunk and White). Of course, those sentences are rather passive constructions, and generally best avoided, but they are active voice.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s