Tips My Editor Taught Me: Passive Vs. Active Voice

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2019-06-02
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Today's editing tips to help writers self-edit will be about...

Active Vs. Passive Voice

If you have ever participated in a writing workshop, or exchanged critiques with another writer, or hired an editor, you most likely have encountered the phrase use active voice instead of passive in the notes you got back. But what does that mean?

Active vs. Passive Voice is part of the show-don't-tell set of rules for writing. And yes, rules were made to be broken, but before you break this one, consider what your use of the passive voice does.

Passive voice is also known at the Academic Voice. It is the way almost everyone is taught to write in school, from 1st grade all the way through college. When writing with a passive voice, you as the author are simply relaying a set of dispassionate facts to your reader, about some things that have happened. The passive voice will distance your writing from your readers. They won't feel like they are a part of what they are reading, they will feel like it is a story they are watching, rather than participating in.

For creative writing, that is usually not where you want your readers to be. Certain narrative types of story telling can use the passive voice to great effect (Lemony Snicket springs to mind), especially when using an unreliable and/or omniscient narrator. Otherwise, it is best to choose a POV style for your story, and then put your reader into the story, rather than telling the reader about things that have happened.

Active vs. Passive voice can be boiled down to the way you use your verbs. You'll notice it immediately if you re-write a scene from third person past tense to first person present tense, and compare the two scenes. In first person-present, you will be forced to put your reader right in the middle of the action, because almost all of your verbs and descriptions will be in the present-progressive ("ing") form. Compare that to your original third person-past scene, and you'll see the difference immediately.

The mistake most authors make that slips their writing into the Passive Voice, is putting the reader one-step removed from what is happening in the scene, and over-using the narrator. Consider the following sentence:

Jessica heard the news1 and got angry2. It3 wasn't fair what was4 happening to her5. She was feeling6 like she might break7 at any moment.

  1. Not every verb needs to be in the past tense when writing 3rd-past, bring the sentence up as close as you can to the present tense, to bring out the active voice.
  2. Classic example of passive voice. The character got/became/was angry. We're just being told a story here. Nobody is actively doing anything.
  3. Try to avoid weak words like it when you can, they don't help your active voice.
  4. This is an example of a 2-step removal from active to passive. What was drops us out of the present, and into the removed past tense.
  5. Again, another classic example of passive voice. Notice how everything is happening to her? She isn't driving her own story, she's a passenger. For the reader, that's very boring (unless you're Lemony Snicket and you're entertaining us with an engaging & unreliable narrator).
  6. Another example of a 2-step removal from active to passive. Put this in the character's voice. Or, even better, give the character some dialog to say this instead of using the narrator.
  7. Trifecta of passive in this example. We have a weak word (might), we are still talking about her instead of having her tell us herself, or in her actions or words, and the three words together are a 2-step removal from active to passive. Don't do this.

That same scene, now told in the active voice:

Hearing the news, Jessica kicked the door closed and locked it. This is bullshit. She stomped across the room and raised the window halfway open.

"Jessica, dear, aren't you overreacting just a bit?" her mother called through the door.

She slammed the window all the way open. "No! I can't take it anymore!"

See how showing the reader the character's feelings with her actions and words, along with pulling the verbs as close to the present-tense as possible is so much more engaging to read? Sometimes it takes more words to convey the same scene (as above), other times it will take much fewer words to tell the reader about someone's emotional state. Showing the reader the character's thoughts, or having them speak, or even having them do simple things like pacing, or biting their nails, or whistling, etc. can all show much faster how a character feels, than writing a paragraph telling us that same information. And that is what literary agents and editors are (usually) looking for in your writing.

Now I am going to show you three examples from my own writing. As in my prior editing tip posts, I'm going to post the actual text from my drafts (I am pulling excerpts from different editors and from different drafts, so don't expect a coherent narrative ^_-)

Passive Voice Example 1:

(Hover your mouse over the red text to see the notes, the notes will also be at the bottom of each example page as footnotes for those of you on mobile)

Their frigate was being pushed through rapid course changes1 to keep ahead of enemy weapons tracking. The strain was pushing2 the ship's in-system EM drive to its limits and the3 ship's inertial dampeners were struggling4 to compensate for the gravitational forces.

Revised:

Carlos continued to push the frigate through rapid course changes to keep ahead of enemy weapons tracking, straining the ship's in-system EM drive to its limits. The ship's inertial dampeners struggled to compensate for the gravitational forces.

  1. Instead of using passive voice here 'their frigate was being pushed,' it would be stronger to use the active voice. Who is doing the 'pushing'?
  2. passive
  3. new sentence here to break out of passive voice
  4. passive, change to 'struggled'

Passive Voice Example 2:

Aila glanced at her shipnet status screen and was surprised to see1 that all of the ships they'd been escorting were still in one piece .2

Revised:

Aila glanced at her shipnet status screen. That all of the ships they'd been escorting were still in one piece was nothing short of miraculous.

  1. Change this out of passive, gets rid of the phrase 'was surprised to see,' which, like 'she thought' is a phrase that distances the reader from her thoughts and reminds the reader that he/she is reading a book rather than experiencing what is going on. We want the reader to experience her thoughts directly rather than being told that POV is having these thoughts.
  2. expand sentence here to put into active voice

Passive Voice Example 3:

Carlos called out the final few seconds until the transition to normal space. As he did so, it got increasingly quiet on the bridge1. Aila hated these moments.

Revised:

Carlos called out the final few seconds until the transition to normal space. As he did, the bridge grew increasingly quiet. Aila hated these moments.

  1. another example of taking passive voice and turning it into active voice

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