Active Voice vs Passive Voice

Last week, writing and studying the craft of writing overwhelmed me. I followed the chapters and exercises in the book, Don’t Murder Your Mystery by Chris Roerden. I read a chapter and then wrote, read another chapter and revised, and so it went for the entire week. I finished only half the book, but my manuscript improved.

Much of Roeden’s writings applies to all writing, not just mystery writing. She discusses the active verses passive voice, one of the elements of good writing familiar to all English instructors. Teachers tell us to use the active voice instead of the passive voice, but few tell us how to do this. Roerden tells how.

While teaching a developmental English class, I devised a system similar to Roerden’s to help my students avoid the passive voice in college essays. Some college instructors don’t consider passive voice incorrect grammar. No surprise there! Have you read any scholarly work lately? Passive voice bores the reader—it took a lot of thought to get that sentence to active voice! English instructors, editors, and agents read a lot of boring passive voice.

When an instructor reads an interesting active-voice essay, she gets so engrossed in the content she forgets to check for other errors. Use the active voice when you send a manuscript to replicate a similar effect on editors and agents. Give them a reason to get lost in the story and forget errors. Errors they would quickly use to reject a boring passive-voice manuscript.

I use the following technique to help my students’ writing and my writing. To eliminate the passive voice, eliminate all forms of the verb to be. Write down these words: is, am, are, was, were, be, been, and being. Don’t attempt to avoid these words as you write the first draft. Eliminate these words when you revise. Sometimes you must rewrite an entire sentence. Usually, you need only to change the order of the words that remain after you remove the passive verb.

Bear with me for a minute while I explain two rules of the English language—simplified, of course.

1)       English language sentences use the SVO method of construction: Subject, Verb, Object. Another way to look at this is to ask who did what to whom? Who = the subject; Did what = the verb; To Whom = the object. This order ensures the subject does something to the object.

2)       When you use a passive verb coupled with the preposition by, you create the most passive of all sentences.

The following simple sentence demonstrates an example of passive voice.

Myrtle Beach was hit by Hurricane Hugo on September 22, 1989.

To change this to active voice, ask yourself: Who did what to whom? Then, ask yourself: Who (or What) performed the action? Next, remove the passive verb was and the preposition by. Finally, rearrange the remaining words. 

Hurricane Hugo hit Myrtle Beach on September 22, 1989.

A word of caution: You cannot remove all passive verbs from 100% of your writing, but if you eliminate 90% of them, you create the active voice. Also, please remember to focus on this problem in your revisions, not in your first draft.

If you still use Word 2003, you can find the percentage of passive voice sentences in any document in the Word Count and Readability dialog box. Unfortunately, I’ve never found that feature in Word 2007.

This week, I encourage you to eliminate as many passive verbs as possible in a chapter of your manuscript as you revise. If you don’t want to read the entire chapter, use the Find tool, and choose one of the passive verbs to begin your search. Sounds easy until you try it, but the more you practice, the easier the task becomes.

Take the challenge—Write Now!

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About Susan Harvey

I'm a humor writer and a newly retired college English instructor. I enjoy reading and writing yet don't take time to do what I really love--writing. I began writing a mystery-romance novel three years ago. Now that I'm retired, I will make time to write with the goal of finishing my novel.
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