When developing your writing craft, one of the ‘rules’ you will often hear is that you should avoid the passive voice. Using the active voice makes your writing simple, clear, concise and immediate, drawing your reader into the action of the piece and giving your writing energy. Using passive voice, on the other hand, can make your writing seem too formal, dull and wordy and can create a distance between the reader and the words. But many writers don’t really understand the difference between active and passive, and so are unsure how to write actively and how to avoid passive voice.
In passive sentences, the person/thing acted upon is the subject of the sentence, and the person/thing doing the action is usually included at the end of the sentence, for example:
The book was read by Sam.
The book is the subject receiving the action, ‘was read’ is the passive verb and Sam is ‘doing’ the action.
In active sentences, the thing or person doing the action is the subject of the sentence, and the thing or person receiving the action is the object. So:
Sam read the book.
Sam is the subject ‘doing’ the action,’ read’ is the verb and the book is the object receiving the action.
What’s the problem?
The problem with passive is that the thing or person receiving the action becomes the subject of the sentence, but he, she or it isn’t actually doing anything. They are having something done to them. The first sentence isn’t grammatically wrong – it makes complete sense, but it sounds unnatural and forced. Another issue with passive voice is that it can be wordy. For example:
It was thought by most people that I killed my husband because he cheated on me.
Contrast the active:
Most people thought I killed my husband because he cheated on me.
That evening, a delicious meal was eaten by Sarah and James.
Contrast the active:
That evening, Sarah and James ate a delicious meal.
When to use passive sentences
There are certain instances when using the passive voice is necessary, even in creative writing. For example, if you are writing a mystery, then you might want to highlight the subject that is the receiver of the action. That sounds confusing, so an example is probably the best way to explain:
The money was stolen.
This sentence is passive. The money is the subject that is the receiver of the action. If the sentence was active we would have to write:
Somebody had stolen the money.
The focus has switched here away from the money and on to the person who has stolen it. So here the passive sentence, with the focus on the money, is the best form to use.
Making sure you’re getting it right
One of the simplest things we can do to improve our writing is to get rid of unnecessary words, keeping our sentences clear, concise and to the point, getting rid of unnecessary words. Changing passive sentences to active sentences can be a good starting point.
If you’re not sure whether you’ve written a sentence in the active or passive voice, look out for the use of ‘was’ or ‘by’. Although not all sentences that include these words are necessarily passive, they can be a good clue. For example;
The dog was walked by Sam.
When you spot a passive sentence, try rewriting it as an active sentence. You might be surprised at the difference it makes to your writing.
And though as a vegetarian it pains me to use this picture – it really does sum it up well:
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I’m not sure if you’ve read Alice Munro’s books, but she has a knack of writing in passive and doing it really well! It gives her stories a flair that I can’t really explain and I think it is quite skillful, to say the least. It’s like you know very well that the story isn’t going to be action packed but it serves a more literary purpose. I do agree that the active writing has much more of an impact though and I guess we should try to use it often unless we’re able to use the passive as well as Ms. Munro 🙂
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I’ve read lots of her short stories – she’s a very powerful and skillful writer. Passive voice certainly can be really effective if done well and there’s certainly no reason not to give it a go, but, as you rightly say, there aren’t many of us that can write like her 🙂
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Another good one. My first report from a Literary consultant said trying eliminating ‘was’ and ‘were’ from as many sentences as possible. At the moment I’m reading J Saffron Foer’s Eating Animals – I may be a vegetarian too, soon.
Thanks Hilary 🙂 And I can definitely recommend vegetarianism – really hope you go for it!