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 is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

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

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

  3. Yep. Keeps life interesting!

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

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

  7. So here’s what I would imagine… Sometimes we really want a certain sound feeling smell ect… to come through, and being passive helps that so instead of: “He lifted the heavy sword, causing it’s tip to drag on the stone in a shower of sparks.” We might say: “As the sword heavy was lifted up, it’s end raked against the stone floor, showering sparks.”

    I think this is what you were talking about when you mentioned emphasis on the object. And I would add that the passive voice can make it more dramatic and vivid… so long as we really zoom in on why. In the examples above, the why is the sparks. What creates the sparks? The sword.

    At the same time though… if we wanted to make that same scene with the sword dramatic and active we could just split it into two sentences: “He lifted the heavy sword. Its end raked on the stone in a shower of sparks.”

    Do you prefer the passive there? Or the second active?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, it depends on the intent of the author. Passive, like “telling” exists for a reason. It’s the author’s job to perceive when is the right moment to use which.

  8. Archie Kregear says

    I was referred to your page because I’m guilty of overusing the passive voice.
    I did not find examples to help me retrain my writing. I did go through a chapter and found some examples. I need to understand this better before I go to work on the other 80 chapters. Please rephrase as many as you wish.

    Eun-seong and Choe-me were tending to the baby.
    We did what we were supposed to and will try again tomorrow.
    The words he spoke were written by Yungak.
    There were three sets of twins,
    She was unlucky.
    Gen. Park approached while everyone was eating breakfast.
    Lt. Rim informed Yongak that he was wanted in Pyongyang.
    Your support during those days was important to me.
    If he was your best, the rest must have been awful,
    She saw Waves and one other boy, who was already partnered.
    After dinner, she showered and went to the guesthouse with Young-ja, who was in a glee mood.
    How was your meeting with Waves?
    “Your partner was delayed. Go get ready,”
    “I’m sure it was not as good as your time with Waves,”
    But each free moment, her mind was drawn back to thinking about what would happen.
    Kua came up to her that afternoon as she was walking back to the dorms from the library.
    Yong-gak took all of the ideas he was learning and put them into a coherent message.
    As the food was starting to be served, Sun-hee ran out.
    The educational materials you produced are being used in each one.
    She heard movement like clothes being taken off, she opened her eyes,
    He will be gone for a few days, maybe a week.
    “This nation will be great under Kim Il-sung,”
    “I would be interested in reviewing your document.
    She hoped this would be the last time.
    “He will be here shortly.”
    “I have been doing a lot of research and have written up a document that I feel outlines our countries political direction.
    Hon-yong has been called away to do some cabinetry in Hyesan.
    You are relieved of your duty.
    Do you know who wrote the paper you are holding?
    They are the brain and nerves. We are the major organs of the body.
    “I am pleased with the progress you are making.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The passive voice is not *always* the incorrect choice. The reason it is discouraged is because it often lacks color or immediacy. It “tells,” instead of “shows.”

      The easiest way to spot it is to look for “was/were” verbs and either delete them or replace them with more active alternatives:

      Eun-seong and Choe-me were tending to the baby=They tended to the baby.
      The words he spoke were written by Yungak.=He spoke Yungak’s words.
      There were three sets of twins=She babysat three sets of twins.

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