Active Voice vs. Passive Voice: How to Use Both to Get the Most Out of Your Writing

Active Voice vs. Passive Voice: How to Use Both to Get the Most Out of Your Writing

Most of us learned about sentences in grammar school. Most of us also promptly forgot all about them after grammar school. This is why, I presume, the art of correctly using the active voice and the passive voice in our fiction is something almost all of us have to relearn at some point in our writing careers. Most of us have been slapped with a reprimand for “too many passive verbs” at one time or another. And, for many of us, the first reaction to this admonition was an unmitigated, “Huh?” Today, let’s talk about the active voice vs. passive voice.

What’s the Difference Between Active Voice and Passive Voice?

One of the marks of professional writers is their mastery of active sentences. Prose that sings almost inevitably does so with the aid of well-chosen action verbs. If we hope to shape our own words into likenesses of the masters of the craft, then we too have to learn how, where, and when to balance our sentence structures. So, first of all, a quick primer on the differences between the two:

In an active sentence, the subject is performing the action described by the verb:

Annan seized the sword.

In a passive sentence, the subject is having the action performed upon it:

The sword was seized by Annan.

The easiest way to spot the difference is to keep your eyes open for state of being verbs, such as is, am, were, was, are, be, being, and been. Also known as linking verbs, these words are a vital part of the English language, but not always the best choice for novelists wishing to infuse life (as opposed to just being) into their prose.

Pitfalls of the Passive Voice

Overuse of passive verbs leads to sentence constructions that lack strength and are often bloated with awkward phrasing. Of the two example sentences above, the first sentence not only portrays a more immediate sense of urgency, it also gains the added merit of conveying the same notion with one less word.

Perhaps the biggest pitfall of passivity is that few us even realize we’re doing it. When I was first warned about passive verbs, my response was to shrug and sniff, “Hmp. I never do that.” A quick glance over my latest manuscript was all it took to surprise me with the number of times I did do it. Implementing active verbs instead of passive is, like pretty much all of writing, a conscious act. We have to train ourselves to recognize the passive constructions as we are writing them—and to substitute active constructions whenever possible.

But Don’t Murder the Passive Voice Altogether Just Yet

None of this is to indicate passive verbs don’t have their place in fiction. They absolutely do. In special instances where the emphasis is on the object (the sword in the example sentences) instead of the person (Annan), passive constructions are preferable. Some sentences demand a more low-key approach; hard-hitting action isn’t always appropriate for the tone.

Upon hearing active verbs are preferable to passive, many authors are tempted to attempt to obliterate passivity from their writing. But not only is this nearly impossible, it’s also unrealistic and unproductive. In order to make our prose as powerful as possible, we require the assets of both active and passive constructions. A good (if very subjective) ratio of active to passive to shoot for is one of around 80-20. But don’t look on this as a hard and fast rule. Strive for action, but keep yourself open to the fact that passivity is occasionally the best choice.

Tell me your opinion: How do you balance the active voice and the passive voice in your writing?

Active Voice vs. Passive Voice: How to Use Both to Get the Most Out of Your Writing

 

 

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this reminder. In reading manuscripts I wrote two or three years ago compared to very recent ones, I can see a marked different in the amount of active vs. passive verbs I use. But sometimes I still have to remind myself. I need to put a little sticky note at the top of my computer or something 🙂 Have a little current of electricity that shoots through the keyboard every time I type the word “was” because that seems to be my favorite, lol.

  2. Thank you, thank you. It’s been a while since I took a writing class and I know I’ve forgotten many of the things I learned.

    I appreciate your reminders and promise to use them.

  3. In addition, I love the title of this post: Tensing Up…

    Yes, yes, yes.

  4. @Cindy: Electric currents would be nice. But that might take the fun little challenge out of hunting those stinkers down too!

    @Shaddy: Well, sentence tenses are a very tense subject, you know. At least, they tend to make a lot of writers pretty tense!

  5. Good post. Like you, I’m thinking “My writing isn’t full of passive sentences” but I’ll go check anyway.

  6. The thing about passivity is that it’s almost invisible. Even most readers won’t notice it. What they *will* notice is the vibrancy of active prose – even if they don’t understand why it’s more vibrant.

  7. Mirah B. says:

    I have to say that I loved the lesson in grammar. Constant reminders of the correct form are very much appreciated. Thanks.

  8. Thanks for reading! I’m glad you got something out of it. I love the grammar side of the craft – the bones beneath the flesh, if you will.

  9. Great post! I found myself trying to infuse all action verbs once I knew I should and know have to force myself to be accepting of some passive ones as well. Thanks for affirming this:)

  10. It’s easy to overreact when we first learn something is wrong. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, but it’s always kind of nice to know we’re all in the same boat, isn’t it? 😉

  11. I just upgraded myself from “dismal” to “needs work” on your poll. That’s progress, huh? 😀

  12. As I read this I was thinking, not me, but I’m not even going to think it! I probably do it a lot. Grammar was never my best subject.

  13. What a neat blog! I’m going to stop by more often. =) ~Chelsea~

  14. Liberty says:

    Thanks for the not-so-gentle reminder, Katie! 🙂 This is one of the things I struggle with most (as you probably remember from some of the critiquing you’ve done for me.) I think I shall get a sticky note for those passive words so I can try to avoid them more frequently–and have a cheat sheet for when I’m writing/editing!

  15. @Linda: Awesome!

    @Gabrielle: The great thing about writing is that you don’t have to be “naturally” good at any of it. It’s so completely learnable!

    @Chelsea: Thanks!

    @Liberty: Cheat sheets are such a wonderful invention. My bulletin boards are covered with them!

  16. Ah, writing classes and writing instruction… As much as I desire to improve my writing, it’s disconcerting to learn I’ve been making so many mistakes. I feel like my lover has just told me he doesn’t like the way I kiss.

    I’m not going to break off the relationship (yet). I’m still passionate about my lover, but now I feel awkward and self-conscious when we’re together. I try to spice things up and inject more “action” into our relationship yet, all the while, I second guess myself. Part of me longs to return to feeling a false sense of security about myself and my abilities – ignorance was bliss. However, I cherish my lover and aspire to the intimate relationship that comes with working through challenges together.

    I know my heart will forgive this blow to my confidence. The strain between my lover and I will soon dissipate. We will take our relationship to its full potential. I will persevere.

    Thanks for the great tips, K.M. (my lover thanks you, too!).

  17. Great metaphor. I think it’s inevitable that we all feel that way at some point or another. But I really do believe that blissful period of ignorance is important. If we all got hit with everything we’re doing wrong right off the bat, we might be discouraged from writing altogether. Once we’ve immersed ourselves in the craft a little more, we’re ready to take the hits and learn what we’re doing wrong.

  18. Thanks for the tips.

  19. Glad you found them useful!

  20. Good article. One correction, however: passive and active are not tenses, they are voices. Tense refers to the time of a verb (past, present, etc.)

  21. Ah, you’re completely right! I’d never heard that before, but a quick Google search showed me the error of my ways. Thanks so much for pointing that out. I’ll have to do a little correcting on this post… there goes my title! 😛

  22. Another one of the reasons we see a problem with this is that many technical writers (and probably other types of non-fiction writers as well) were taught (like I was) that passive was not only acceptable, but preferred. They said it sounded more professional. They taught me that you didn’t want to get personal in your technical writing and that passive voice would take out the “personality”, so to speak.

  23. How interesting. I can see why they’d maybe teach that in technical writing, but it could certainly be inhibiting later on too. Perhaps akin to how journalists often have to fight to unlearn many of the precepts of their trade when they go on to other genres?

  24. Some passives do not contain a form of the verb “be”; sometimes it is implied. For example: “The advice given by the doctor was to eat more vegetables.” contains an implied “was”: “The advice that was given by the doctor was to eat more vegetables.”

  25. Yes, indeed. Thanks for point that out.

  26. Don’t you just love how you’re always learning new things! 🙂

  27. Yep. Keeps life interesting!

  28. I try not to use passive tense much, but I have found it useful in some instances. It makes things seem distant, which is perfect if the POV character is sort of out of it or only vaguely aware of his/her surroundings.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Passive voice is absolutely a crucial part of the language. Just because active voice is often preferable in narrative fiction doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with bathwater. So your approach is a good one!

  29. In figuring those rstios…does it include passives in dialog? I find the vast majority of passives are in the structure of common speech patterns.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Dialogue follows its own rules, and while active constructions are still usually preferable, dialogue gets away with more passivity if the character’s voice demands it.

  30. Oh my goodness you’re a friggin’ genius. This advice is golden.

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