Active Vs. Passive Voice

A few months ago, I went hunting for some writing resources for a friend. I found great articles about telling vs. showing, dialogue, past perfect tense, and more. Unfortunately, I could not find anything, not a single blog post, that described the differences between active and passive voice.

Since many writers (myself included) struggle with passive voice, I thought I'd shed some light on the topic. While I don't always catch passive voice in my own writing (you know, that whole "being too close to it" thing) but if grad school taught me anything, it was how to hunt out passive voice.

So, grab your safari hat, pick up your machete, and apply some bug spray. Here we go!

What's the Difference Between Active and Passive Voice?

Active voice gives the verb to the subject of the sentence, to the person/thing DOING the action.

Active: Sally wrote the book.

Passive voice gives the verb to the object of the sentence, to the something to which an action is being DONE.

Passive: The book was written by Sally.

See the difference? Generally, active voice makes the sentence shorter, but also stronger. Passive voice sounds weak and can make sentences unnecessarily wordy.

Why Should we Care?

If you're writing research papers (and have a professor who's strict about grammar), everything should be written in active voice. If you're writing fiction, you have a little more leeway. If you wrote your novel 100% in active voice, it would likely sound stiff and stilted. But that doesn't mean you should sprinkle in passive voice willy-nilly. You should use it intentionally to increase the natural flow of the work. If you use too much passive voice, your work will appear sloppy and weak.

Let me clarify what I mean by "weak." The use of passive voice doesn't make you a bad writer. Passive voice has its place. In fact, if you have a character who isn't sure of himself, having him use passive voice in dialogue might help reflect that. Just know that passive sentences don't have the strength or forward momentum of active sentences. Consider the differences here:

Example 1 (passive voice):

Behind my home there were woods that I was running through. It was September and the air was cold against my hot skin. A shiver was working through me. Last year hadn't been this cold, and it certainly wasn't so final. The first beads of sweat were running down my face, and my path was blocked by a fallen long, so I leaped over it.

Example 2 (active voice):

I ran through the woods behind my home, the September air brisk against my hot skin. I fought back a shiver. Last year hadn't been this cold, and it certainly hadn't felt so...final. The first beads of sweat ran down my face, and I leaped over a fallen log that blocked my path.

See the difference? Granted, I went a little overboard with the use of passive voice and progressive tense in the first example, but I hope it made my point about the impact of active vs. passive voice. Can we all agree that the second example is more engaging?

Yeah? We're all good there? Great. Now, on to hunting down those pesky passive passages.

Spotting Passive Voice: "To Be" Verbs

There are a number of ways to test for passive voice. None of them are perfect, since English is the language of rule exceptions. One of the easiest methods is to look for the "to be" verbs: is, are, am,  were, was, been, being, etc. When you use these verbs as "helping verbs" (as in you attach them to another verb) they are almost always an indicator of passive voice.

Passive ex: Buffy was bitten by a vampire named Angel.

In that case, the real verb is "to bite" and "was" simply helps that verb. And why does it need help? Because we've given the verb to the sentence object (Buffy) instead of the sentence subject (Angel).

Here it is again, in active voice.

Active ex: The vampire Angel bit Buffy.

Notice the difference? This time, Angel has the verb so it doesn't need any help from those "to be" critters.

Unfortunately, like most everything in English, there is an exception. "To be" verbs aren't always used as helping verbs. They can also be their own fully functional verbs.

Active example using a "to be" verb: Firefly was a wonderful show that ended too soon.

In that example, I used "was" as the actual verb, not a helping verb. In doing so, it's still active voice. Granted, I could have used a more interesting verb, but at least it's not passive.

Still with me? Good. Let's move on to the next passive indicator.

Spotting Passive Voice: -ING Words

You'll find another red flag for passive voice in the -ing words. A search for "ing" in your MS is an easy way to weed out (some of your) passive sentences.

Ex: The cat was attacking the fly.

This one is tricky because this isn't an issue of giving the verb to the object instead of the subject. In fact, this isn't technically passive voice at all; it's the progressive tense.

While this isn't technically passive voice, a lot of writers and editors will mark it as such since it's still considered weaker writing. Progressive tense certainly has its place (and a bigger one than true passive voice in my opinion), but it's a good idea to avoid over-saturating your work with -ing verbs.

Here's the same sentence as above but removing the progressive tense:

The cat attacked the fly.

And this is where things get weird. If you write your entire novel with sentences like the one above, you're going to get a stilted, awkward novel. So, it's good to mix it up.  I like to use the progressive tense when the action gets interrupted by a stronger, more active verb. Consider the following:

Example one (pure active voice):

The cat attacked the fly. I came home and caught her. Then she sat in time out.

Example two (active voice with progressive tense):

I caught the cat attacking a fly when I came home from work. Now she's sitting in time out while I take it outside.

Ok, so these examples are silly and ridiculous (have I mentioned that I'm a cat lady?), but I hope they get the point across. While the first example is more "technically" correct, it's stiff. The second example, while using some of those -ing words, feels more natural.

Avoid the Zombie Apocalypse

[Updated tip 3/10/16]

Three years later and I'm back with a new tip!

I'm pretty sure I stole this tip from a book or another blog post, but I can't for the life of me remember where. I've adapted it to teach my student staff how to use active voice in their conduct reports.

The basic concept is this: if you can add the words "by zombies" to your sentence and have it make grammatical sense, you've written something in passive voice.

Example: The report was written yesterday.

Is it passive? Let's try adding "by zombies" and see if it works.

The report was written by zombies yesterday.

Unfortunately, that makes sense. At least grammatically, since what kind of zombie would actually finish a report?

Let's make the sentence active:

Dave wrote the report yesterday.

In this new example, there's no where to put "by zombies" so we've got ourselves active voice. Plus, now we actually know WHO wrote the report, which could be important information. Then again, if it's crucial for your narrative that we don't know who wrote it, you can get away with using passive voice here so long as you've got strong active voice surrounding it.

Wrapping it All Up

At this point, I'm sure you're sick of all this passive vs. active talk. But I hope this was at least a little helpful as you revise your fiction. I know learning about active voice has helped me immensely, both as a novelist and a professional who sends lots of emails and writes plenty of reports.

Still have questions? Leave me a comment and I'll do my best to answer. Think active voice is for chumps? Well, I guess you can tell me that, too.

-Isabel