#WritingTips Active Vs. Passive #WWWBlogs #Writinganovel

This is a post I wrote a while ago that deals with an issue many writers struggle with.

active passive

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.

Passive

In passive sentences, the thing acted upon is the subject of the sentence, and the thing doing the action is usually included at the end of the sentence, for example:

The book was read by Sam.

boy reading book

The book is the subject receiving the action, ‘was read’ is the passive verb and Sam is doing the action.

Active

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:

Passive

It was thought by most people that I killed my husband because he cheated on me.

husband passive

Contrast the active:

Most people thought I killed my husband because he cheated on me.

Or:

Passive

That evening, a delicious meal was eaten by Sarah and James.

Contrast the active:

That evening, Sarah and James ate a delicious meal.

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. (Passive)

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 although it pains me, as a vegetarian, to use this example, it does sum it up!

mac passive

 

 

Advertisements

15 comments

  1. Love the bit at the end!!!!

    I think this sort of thing is a part of the editing that all writers should learn to do for themselves, before they even think of sending a book to a content editor. Reviewing many books, as I do, I see this often; I reckon one of the problems self pub writers face is simply not being prepared to put the hours in when it comes to making their work as good as it can be. Posts like this must surely help! (ps, I had no idea this was called the ‘active/passive’ – I thought it was just ‘making the sentence read better – good thing I don’t write many posts about the technical aspect of writing…! :D)

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Technically, I’m loving it is still passive as opposed to “I love it,” which is why it’s so damned difficult to write in the active voice all the time and why writers ignore the rule even as they tout it. I once read an essay in an English compostion book telling young writers to write with active verbs, only seventy percent of the verbs the author used were passive. The article was also for essay writing where active verbs are far less necessary. (I urge them on students because most of their sentences usually diagram to the root sentence “it is.”)

    However, when I edit my precious prose, with effort and willpower, I whittle. cull and axe those passive verbs with my word processor, sculpting them into sleek and sleathy missiles that sail into the reader’s subconscience where they belong. Not always. Some verbs remain passive like immovable objects derailing even Newton’s metaphors, but that’s the price we pay to play with language. We have it in our power to decide when passive is active enough, and I’m loving it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment. I agree that passive voice has a place, particularly in formal writing. I also think it’s wise not to get too technical or to overcomplicate things – the last example is really just a bit of fun to show how the slogan wouldn’t work if it had been written in an overtly passive way, As Terry says, what’s most important is having a feel for what sounds right, for what works, and hopefully having those examples will help writers to identify that more clearly 🙂

      Like

  3. Brilliant, useful blog as ever Alison. This IS writing for writers … it has to sound right, and because we are so desperate to get our stories written we MUST accept that it is only in the editing that our true voice comes through, Well, that’s what I think and I love the way you have highlighted what so many of us do wrong, so easily. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Good reminder. My first feedback from a literary consultant told me to attend to this, and the most helpful pointer, as you suggested, is to reduce the use of ‘was’ and ‘it’. Academic writing is, to a large extent, passive, so needs unlearning for fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Hilary. I think that’s sometimes a trap new writers fall into – they want to make their writing ‘sound’ formal almost, so they use passive voice, usually without even realising it. A lot of fiction writing means unlearning things we’ve been taught at school too.

      Like

  5. Excellent post… It is odd to see that the direct object becomes subject, if you think it… and yet that´s exactly what happens with passive voice… thanks for sharing… very well explained… best wishes Aquileana 🌀

    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 )

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s