Simply Writing | TURN YOUR PASSIVE WRITING INTO AN ACTIVE VOICE

In Creative Writing by RWA Blog Coordinator22 Comments

Active vs. passive voice is one of those concepts that seems to confound many writers. We think we’re writing actively, that it’s clear our characters are doing what they’re doing, but often we’re not.

First look, it appears a relatively easy job to identify which one you’re using—second look, it’s not as easy as it sounds. 

So, let’s start at the beginning with some definitions to help us in this process.

Firstly, let’s look at some words we’ll need to understand before we look at each of the voices in turn:

Subject of a sentence = this refers to a person, place or thing who is the main topic of a sentence. This ‘thing’ can be referred to by its name, a title or by a pronoun (he, she, I, you, it, this)

Verb = an action or ‘doing’ word

Now, onto the good stuff . . . 

ACTIVE VOICE = when the subject performs or causes the verb

  • The subject comes before the verb/action
  • The subject is the ‘thing’ that is performing the verb/action
  • The receiver comes after the subject

Example:

Jane kicked the ball into the goal.

Jane scored a goal. 

Jane discovered it was harder to kick the ball in the rain.

See how easy it is to identify who is performing the action? In all cases, Jane is actively doing something. The sentences are clear, concise and easy to follow. And just as importantly, they are to the point—something that’s great for faster paced writing.

PASSIVE VOICE = when the subject is the receiver of the verb

  • The subject comes after the verb/action
  • The subject is the ‘thing’ that receives or experiences the verb/action
  • The receiver comes before the subject

Example:

The ball was kicked into the goal by Jane.

The goal was scored by Jane.

It was discovered by Jane that it is harder to kick the ball in the rain.

Can you sense how roundabout these sentences are? They’re cumbersome, and definitely wordier. It takes a little work to discover who the real subject is, ie, who is actually doing something and what they’ve done. 

How does this look visually?

Why should we choose active over passive voice in our writing?

Because by doing so we make our subject the focus of that sentence. When our subject is our character, this shows our character taking action or taking control of the situation. 

With passive voice, our writing is weaker, our tension is diluted and our action is less . . . active. 

Active voice tends to be less verbose (uses less words) and it is a much stronger, more action-oriented form of writing. Changing passive voice into active voice will immediately ramp up the pace of your writing. It will make your writing tighter, sleeker and smoother, making the reading experience much easier and less cumbersome. 

How do we identify passive voice?

When identifying passive voice, there will be a double verb in the sentence. This double verb will consist of:

  1. some form of the verb ‘to be’ (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been), and
  2. the past participle of another verb (usually ending in –ed) 

Let’s see how this looks visually:

As mentioned above, passive voice exerts a huge impact on pacing. If you want to identify passive voice in your manuscript, the easiest way is to search for forms of the verb (to be).

Example:

The meal was cooked by Aunt Ellie.

Notice here that our double verb is ‘was cooked’—linking our ‘to be’ verb (was) with an –ed verb (cooked). If we turn this sentence around and make it active, we’ll end up with:

Aunt Ellie cooked the meal. 

Now we have five words instead of seven. This sentence is clearer, and Aunt Ellie seems more active. She’s actually done something, in comparison to the first example, where it sounds as if the meal is doing something! Until you look closer, that is.

When would we choose to use passive voice?

Sometimes there is method in our madness and we intentionally use passive voice. Situations when this may occur include:

  • when we are intentionally trying to hide the subject of our sentence, ie, we are trying to hide who performed the action

Example:

The window was broken by a random ball.

Note the double verb, was from the verb ‘to be’ and broken from the verb ‘to break’.

When could we use this sentence? If a child wanted to divert blame for their action (or accident), they might say something like this. 

The active version of this sentence would be ‘I broke the window with a ball,’ immediately identifying the speaker as the guilty culprit. 

  • When intentionally trying to minimize guilt for an action, the subject might say something like:

Example

The window was broken by me.

By making the subject go last in this sentence, it takes emphasis off them, lessening the impact of the statement. 

  • When passive voice better emphasizes the main point of the message.

Example

Windows were broken by children in the neighborhood. 

This example could be used in a report or a speech. It may not directly link subject (children) and verb (broken) but it does wield a certain amount of impact if used for these purposes. 

More examples:

ACTIVE: A sudden thickness coated her throat, making it impossible to speak.

PASSIVE: Her throat was coated with a sudden thickness, making it impossible to speak.

ACTIVE: He twirled the stake once more, close enough that I caught the acrid stench of death on his breath.

PASSIVE: The stake was twirled in his hands once more, close enough that the acrid stench of death on his breath was burning my nostrils.

ACTIVE: James would wreak havoc, as he’d done once before.

PASSIVE: Havoc would be wreaked by James, as it had done once before.

ACTIVE: I pinned his burly arms backward and he stumbled, breaking the alpha’s stride.

PASSIVE: His burly arms were pinned backward and he stumbled, causing the alpha to break his stride. 

ACTIVE: She twisted the wayward strand before tucking it back behind her ear.

PASSIVE: The wayward strand was twisted before she tucked it back behind her ear.

ACTIVE: The blazing sky painted her skin with a fiery glow.

PASSIVE: Her skin was painted with a fiery glow from the blazing sky.

And still more examples:

And that’s all folks!

I hope I’ve helped clear up the mystery of active vs. passive voice. If you have any questions, make sure you post them in the comments beneath the blog and I’ll be sure to get back to you. Or if you have any examples of active or passive voice you’d like to share or maybe discuss, please post them too!

Firstly, thank you all for coming back this month. I really appreciate every one of you reading, commenting and sharing my posts. 

I’ve been very slack this month and haven’t announced last month’s winner for the 30 minute skype session. No better time than now to do it. 

Drum roll . . . 

And the winner is:

LEXI GREENE!!!!!

Congratulations Lexi. Please email me on info@michelle-somers.com to discuss redeeming your skype session. 

Once again this month, I’m offering one lucky commenter a half hour skype session to discuss anything writing related. It could be your query, your synopsis or 300 words from your current work in progress. We could even discuss how you can incorporate a more active voice into your story. Yes, you heard right. We get to chat, face-to-face—or computer screen to computer screen—about whatever it is about your writing you’d like to discuss.

To enter the draw, please comment below and share the most surprising or useful thing you’ve learned since reading my Simply Writing blogs. Any ideas on what you’d like to see featured on future blogs will be gratefully received. Or perhaps you’d like to share how you’ll start to incorporate a more active voice into your current WIP.

Any and all comments welcome! I love reading your feedback and input each month ☺ and much as this blog isn’t set up for notifications, I always ALWAYS answer your comments. So make sure you pop back to check my replies ☺

If you’d like extra chances to win, share links to this blog on any or all social media sites. Tag me so I know you’ve shared, and the more shares, the more times I’ll place your name in the draw.

A name will be drawn in time for next month’s blog so please pop back next month to see if you’re a winner ☺

Thanks so much to you all for stopping by. Have a fabulous month, and I’ll see you all again in November ☺

Michelle xx


Michelle Somers

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Michelle Somers is a bookworm from way back. An ex-Kiwi who now calls Australia home, she’s a professional killer and matchmaker, a storyteller and a romantic. Words are her power and her passion. Her heroes and heroines always get their happy ever after, but she’ll put them through one hell of a journey to get there.

She lives in Melbourne, Australia, with her real life hero and three little heroes in the making, and Emmie, a furry black feline who thinks she’s a dog. Her debut novel, Lethal in Love won the Romance Writers of Australia’s 2016 Romantic Book of the Year (RuBY) and the 2013 Valerie Parv Award. The second in her Melbourne Murder series, Murder Most Unusual was released in February 2017.

In between books, she runs workshops – both face-to-face and online – for writers wanting to hone their craft. The first book in her Simply Writing Series, Simply Synopsis, is changing the way writers craft this vital, yet perplexing, writing tool. And through her Simply Writing series of blogs, she hopes to simplify so much more.

You can find out all about Michelle, her adventures and her books at her website or follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram.

Comments

    1. Thanks so much ML 🙂
      It’s a really tough concept for us to get right, but once you get it you’ll never forget it!
      Best of luck in the draw!
      Michelle xx

  1. Recognising passive voice is one of those Big Things a lot of writers seem to struggle with – I always think I’m pretty good and then my editor goes “Uh… Cath…” and I’m like OH HECK.

    1. lol! I feel your pain Catherine! Yes, it’s a lot like show don’t tell in that respect. It doesn’t matter how many times I edit my manuscript, I always find telling where showing would be better. And I’m like, ‘how on earth did I miss that the 62 other times I read this!!!’
      Thanks so much for sharing your experience with passive voice.
      Best of luck in the draw!
      Michelle xx

  2. Thanks Michelle. I understand things better once you have simplified them, lol. Can you please simplify pacing?

    1. Hi Helen
      I can definitely look at that for a future post. It’ll be a big topic!
      I’m so glad you found this post helpful.
      Thanks so much for taking the time to visit and comment.
      Best of luck in the draw!
      Michelle xx

    1. Hi Danielle
      I’ll definitely look to doing this sometime in the future. It’s an idea I’ve been tossing around for a while. Thanks so much for the suggestion.
      And thanks for taking the time to stop by and comment 🙂
      heaps of luck in the draw!
      Michelle xx

  3. Hey Michelle.

    Another great topic and excellent examples. I also wondered about whether you could rewrite this passive example: ‘The window was broken by a random ball’ as ‘A random ball broke the window’?

    Oh and I too am super interested in info on pacing!

    Cheers,

    Sandra 🙂

    1. Hi Sandra
      Thanks! I’m so glad you found the post helpful.
      Yes, if I was rewording that sentence, I’d definitely reword it that way. The only time it could change is if the ball wasn’t random and you knew who kicked it 🙂
      I’ll definitely look to writing a post on pacing.
      Thanks so much for stopping by every month and commenting. I really appreciate it.
      Best of luck in the draw!
      Michelle xx

  4. Highly informative for me personally. I always struggle with active passive voice. When I just free write and go in the zone I don’t think.

    The thing for me – and this is a question – Tense – do you have a session on Tense – I am terrible with tense.
    I watch
    I watched
    I am watching
    As I write in the first person so much. It really should be present tense – I watched her go outside. Right??????

    Thanks so much – oh I am a member of RWA too and a bloke! wow, a rare breed

    1. Hi Hamish
      So great to see you here! RWA is a fab group to belong to. What genre of romance do you write?
      You’re so right. It’s so easy to slip out of active voice when we’re free writing. But that’s what the editing process (and second and third etc drafts!) are for 🙂
      I don’t have a session on tense. That’s a really interesting request. I might put that on my list for a later post. Thanks!
      And yes, I tend to write a lot in first person these days, and it is ‘I watched’.
      Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment on the post.
      Heaps of luck for the draw!
      Michelle xx

  5. THANK YOU Michelle! This is a topic I struggle with so bad. I think I’m getting better at fixing passive voice, finding it is another story, so thank you for including the hints. Also, great pictures for us visual folk to follow!! I’ve been waiting for this topic and you nailed it 🙂

    1. My pleasure, Cassie! I’m so glad you found the post helpful.
      I’m big on examples – they always help me understand things so much better, so I just have to include examples when I write a post. It’s good to know they make a difference.
      And I had a little extra time this month, so I played around on Canva to create the pics. I thought they might help.
      Thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment. It’s always good to know when I post that I’m not posting to empty space. The feedback is always much appreciated 🙂
      Best of luck for the draw!
      Michelle xxx

    1. My pleasure Karina.
      I had you in mind as I wrote it. I know you mentioned you were keen for a post on active vs passive voice.
      Thanks for stopping by and heaps of luck in the draw!
      Michelle xx

  6. Hi Michelle. Enjoyed reading this excellent lesson on active voice. When I begin to line edit my manuscript, I nowdays start with searching for words “was” and “by”. Weeding out any passive sentences first feels great.
    Dora

    1. Hi Dora
      That’s a great tip. Yes, you’re right. When editing, starting with something simple like passive sentences is a great idea.
      Thanks so much for sharing this.
      Best if luck in the draw!
      Michelle xx

  7. I have been trying to use active voice more in my writing, but I suspect it’s a combination now.
    Your examples were very clear and I love how you always break it down.
    Thanks Michelle.

    1. Hi Julie
      Passive voice can sometimes be a tough nut to crack. Keep at it. The more you actively look, the more you’ll find it and strengthen your writing 🙂
      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. Wishing you heaps of luck in the draw!
      Michelle xx

  8. So much easier to understand than GMC!!

    Lol!! Loved the articlee.

    Annette

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