Passive voice. If you write, chances are you’ve used it or been plagued by it. While it may up your word count when writing a tedious essay, too much passive voice can suck the action out of your writing and lead to repetitive words and phrases.
If you’re a little foggy on what passive voice is, not sure how to get rid of it, or not sure when you can use it, this post is for you! Read on for a guide about injecting more action to your story and decreasing the number of times you write the words “were” “was” and “by”.
Defining Passive Voice
To make sense of passive voice, first consider what active voice is. Typically, when we write a sentence using active voice, the subject of the sentence performs an action with an object or to an object producing a sentence like:
John ate the sandwich.
John is performing the action and is clearly the subject of the sentence. The sandwich is clearly the object of the action. Passive voice, however, switches up the order of the subject and object, making the intention of the sentence unclear. A passive construction of this same sentence would be:
The sandwich was eaten by John.
The sandwich, the object of the action, is in the position where the subject should be, making it more confusing to determine who is actually performing the action. In this construction, something is having an action “done to it” as opposed to a subject actually performing an action. Sentences like these are defined as passive voice.
In passive voice, the focus is placed more heavily on something receiving an action. In active voice, someone is clearly performing an action that is affecting an object or person and that subject is the emphasis of the sentence.
Why Avoid Passive Voice?
There are certainly instances where passive voice is appropriate, but avoid relying on it when writing. In short, passive voice lacks the clarity that active voice provides and can leave the meaning of your sentence ambiguous. Take this sentence for example:
After her plan was thwarted, Alice had to invent a new scheme.
If you read this sentence as part of a larger whole, then yes, you would likely know who thwarted Alice’s plans. However, if you were summarizing a story to a friend or including this sentence on the back of your book jacket, it would leave the reader wondering: Who thwarted her plans? Who performed the thwarting action? Passive voice is confusing and leaves out details that should be included for the reader.
Consider this sentence instead:
After the police thwarted Alice’s plan, she had to invent a new scheme.
This sentence, written with active voice, clearly includes the subject of the sentence. The police thwarted her plans, rather than an unknown entity. By inserting one subject, the police, we give the reader so much more information about the scenario. We tell them Alice is likely enacting something illegal, she’s going up against law enforcement, the police were one step ahead of her.
Not all passive sentences lack the subject. This sentence could have been written as:
After her plan was thwarted by the police, Alice had to invent a new scheme.
However, when writers use passive voice, the subject of the sentence is frequently omitted.
In addition to making your writing confusing, passive voice sucks the action out of your story. If you’re writing a tense scene, like a battle or a heated argument, and every action has a pesky “was” attached to the front of it, the scene will lose much of its tension.
When we write with active voice like, “The battalion burned the village,” the concise sentence structure and active verb generates more intrigue and excitement rather than “the village was burned by the battalion”. When writing an action scene, remember “less is more”. The more concise you make your sentences, the harder they’ll hit.
Passive voice is the most obvious in summaries, whether those summaries are book jackets, part of a report, or just a casual blog post. The goal of a summary is to produce a succinct retelling of events, and passive voice throws in way more words than you need. If you quickly surpass your word count for an article or post, run through your summary and look for an extra “was”, “were”, or “by”. If you can rewrite your summary to eliminate these words, you’ll have the word count down in no time.
How to Spot Passive Voice
If you are concerned that your recently written passage is littered with passive voice, there are a few quick ways you can check it.
First, do a quick search in your writing for the words “was” “were” or “by”. If your word counter for these is remarkably high, you’ve probably included too much passive voice in your passage.
Another way to check your writing is by finding verbs and the subject performing them. If you find too many “lonely” verbs that lack a subject performing them, there is more passive voice in your writing than you need.
When reading over your writing, take a pen or highlighter tool and see if you can trace every verb in a sentence back to a specific subject in that sentence. Most verbs should have a clear subject performing them. If you struggle to attach most of your verbs to an actor, you probably have too much passive voice.
How to Remove Pesky Passive Voice
Once you’ve found your passive sentences, re-writing them is a simple task. Begin by eliminating those passive indicators, “was”, “were”, and “by”. They can’t all be eliminated, but get rid of many of the recurring ones.
Then, look for the actors. Find the people/things performing the actions and rewrite the sentence without those passive indicators. If you can’t find the person completing the action, you may have an instance of passive voice. Try rewriting the sentence including a person completing the action, and edit it to be as minimally wordy as possible.
As you begin searching for passive voice, the process may be tedious, especially if you’ve grown accustomed to using this writing style. That’s okay! You may need to practice using it less before you feel comfortable with your writing.
When to Use Passive Voice
Despite all this talk about eliminating passive voice from your writing, there are a few instances where it can be appropriate.
If you need to put an emphasis on an object rather than the person using it, use passive voice to emphasize that the object is the most important point in the sentence. For example:
The crowd toppled the ancient relic from its stand atop the hill.
This sentence places emphasis on the crowd, but to make the sentence more dramatic, you might try:
The ancient relic was toppled from its stand atop the hill.
Both are appropriate, but you might opt to use the second one, as it places more emphasis on the object being destroyed, rather than those destroying it.
Another time you may opt to use passive voice is when the person or entity performing an action is meant to remain unknown. If your book alludes to a mysterious person, using active voice can be difficult, as you find yourself constantly referring to this character by repeated descriptors. Instead of using a whole thesaurus to describe your anonymous character, use passive voice to describe what the character is acting upon.
The unknown entity placed the flowers on the grave.
You could instead write:
Flowers were mysteriously placed on the grave.
The second option saves you from having to continually tell your readers about the unknown presence and instead lets you focus on what they are doing to further the story. This instance of passive voice works great because it can save you a lot of time and repetition by taking the focus off of the actor and placing it on the things or people the actor is affecting.
In short, don’t kick passive voice to the curb just yet. When used sparingly and intentionally, it can provide a useful perspective on the events of the story.
Whether or not you’re a frequent user of passive voice, be on the look out for instances of it in your writing. Challenge yourself to transform passive portions of your writing into zones filled with active voice. Remember, your reader wants to be in the middle of that action, not just a passive observer.