Writing Basics: Active Voice vs. Passive Voice

As writers, we must always stay vigilant about keeping our readers engaged. If the audience becomes bored of our writing, we run the risk of losing them all together. Whether we write fiction or non-fiction, the best way we can do this is by maintaining the use of active voice in our sentences. In order to do this, we must firmly understand the difference between the active voice and the passive voice. By identifying the subject of each sentence, we can determine whether it uses the active voice or the passive voice.

Active Voice

When a sentence’s subject performs an action, we call this the active voice. Sentences written in active voice have a clear meaning and tone, and get the point across easily to readers. For example:

  • The dogs ate the turkey dinner.
  • Rocky punched Ivan Drago.
  • Arthur lifted the sword from the stone.

In each of the above sentences, the subject and the action are clear, and the subject performs the verb’s action. As readers, you can see that the sentences have all three basic parts of a sentence: the subject, the verb and the object, in that order. The subject dogs performed the action ate the object turkey dinner. The subject Rocky performed the action, punched, on the object Ivan Drago. Arthur performed the action lifted upon the sword. Each time, the subject does the verb – they don’t sit around and let the verb perform an action upon them.

Passive Voice

When the action of a sentence is performed upon the subject, we describe this sentence as being spoken in the passive voice. A sentence written in passive voice always uses a form of to be and the past participle of a verb. Usually this causes a preposition to come right after the verb as well. To better describe what a sentence written in passive voice looks like, we will change our previous examples into passive voice.

  • The turkey dinner was eaten by the dogs.
  • Ivan Drago was punched by Rocky.
  • The sword was lifted from the stone by Arthur.

In each of these sentences, we have the same subject as before, but now the subject is being acted upon instead of doing the action. The sentences mean exactly the same thing as before, but now the subjects have switched places with the objects in each case. In each case, we use was and then the past tense verb and a preposition. (Was eaten by. Was punched by. Was lifted by) The sentences do not flow as neatly as the examples in the active voice, and thus would be less effective at getting the point across in this form. However, that doesn’t mean you should never use passive voice in your writing.

When to Use Passive Voice

In general, you should stick with active voice in your writing the majority of the time. However, there are times when you can and should use passive voice, though sparingly. For the “Ivan Drago was punched by Rocky” example above, it doesn’t make that much sense for us to use the passive voice when we have been following Rocky the entire time. However, if if we write Ivan Drago as the perspective character of this portion of the writing, then it is acceptable to say Ivan Drago was punched by Rocky to not mislead the readers.

You still want to make sure to avoid passive voice in most cases, however, as we want to keep our writing as clear as possible.

When in Doubt, Identify the Subject

A noun might come at the beginning of a sentence, but that does not mean it is the subject of the sentence. Remember, the subject of a sentence does the verb to the object, no matter which comes first. If you are having trouble with a given sentence not really flowing that well as you write, then perhaps you have a passive voice problem. More times than not, it’s best to identify the subject of a confusing and completely re-write it in the active voice.

For example:
The long and winding road to the old farm house on Maverick Avenue was traversed by the infamous burglar Tom Hutton in order to rob them of their valuables.

The meaning is not as clear as it could be, and the subject comes way later in the sentence than it really should. How about this instead?

The infamous burglar Tom Hutton traversed the long and winding road to the old farm house on Maverick Avenue in order to rob them of their valuables.

This way, we set it up by describing who it is, what they are doing and then to whom. The meaning remains the same as the first example, but it makes it easier to read and does a better job of keeping the reader engaged this way.

A quick tip: Don’t worry too much about getting bogged down by active vs. passive voice on your first draft of a manuscript as a new writer. It’s much easier to address passive voice in a later draft than to disrupt the flow of your writing. You should be more concerned about what you want to write in a first draft, and not as much how you want to write it. The more you write, the more active voice will become second nature to you. Good luck!

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