Tips for authors: the active voice

Don’t use the passive voice. I’ve heard that advice over and over when I looked up editing tips. Avoid the passive voice, it will suck the life out of your sentence. Use the active voice.

I remember the first time I read this particular bit of advice. I literally scratched my little mathematical head and thought: what’s the passive voice? I had heard the word passive used by my husband the therapist but he used it as: passive-agressive. I doubted that was what they meant.

The passive voice is when the receiver of the action is placed in the position of subject. Huh? Yeap. That’s what I thought.

Example: (active voice) The boy threw a stick.

(passive voice) The stick was thrown by the boy.

It’s all fine and dandy to see it on a clear example. It’s much, MUCH harder to spot it in a novel. Especially if you’re writing it. I, for one, could never see it in my own sentences.

Solution: if you use Word, you can set your preferences in editing so that the program looks for the passive voice and underlines your passive sentences for you. It’s awesome! You don’t have to spot them, the computer does it. (yeey!)

Now, this post so far might not make any sense to you at all…so here are some links with other helpful sites that explain the passive voice issue and, hopefully, bring understanding.

Nathan Bransford is an amazing resource and an author to boot. I would highly recommend this article:

This next one is a GREAT post because it’s actually a handout from a class. It’s got myths about the passive voice, what it is (with an actual definition not like my made up mess), examples when to use it and other helpful parts. I wouldn’t miss this one.

Five tips on how to avoid the dreaded passive-voice.

A post by Kelly Leiter with other links and tips on differentiating between the active and passive voice.

Finally, Stephen King rants on why he hates the passive voice.

Hope this helps someone out!

13 thoughts on “Tips for authors: the active voice

  1. Hi Taylor; I confess. I am a recovering passive voicer. In my edit checklist, I look for them. WordPress also diligently flags the error. I guess I am getting better. When I write, I notice the passive voice now, but it still feels more natural than active. Oh well. Thank you, Silent

  2. Perhaps I am just odd, but this is not that big a deal to me as a reader. Now, sure, if a work is riddled with it, that is a sure indication of suck. And I do try to be diligent and write active sentences of my own. But I don’t see any reason to be hardcore about it, and I think an occasional passive-voice sentence is not that big a deal. The main thing is, don’t do it frequently, and don’t do it in a place where it is glaring.

    • That’s the key. You can at least spot it and you’re in control of where you use it. I had no idea if I was even using it! :-0. It’s better now. I agree, there are times when it’s actually a bonus to use it because it highlights a point.

    • Agreed, Gene’O. I think it’s one of those things that only those “forced” to read really bad writing notice a lot; when done in moderation, it doesn’t bother me much. Stephen King sure likes to rant, but the example with the meeting was an extremely bad one, if you ask me.

      Still, a valid concern to keep in the back of your mind. I don’t think I overuse the passive voice, but then again, it’s incredibly easy to miss such flaws when it’s your own writing. “It is known,” as the saying favoured by the Khaleesi’s girls goes. (Yeah, that was intentionally passive!)

      • Wowee zowee. Did you just respond to a comment a year after I posted it? I believe you might have. That has never happened to me before, so thank you for the new experience and for bringing me back to this thread πŸ™‚

        I still feel the same way, but I will tell you. I weed it out of blog posts and emails A LOT these days. I try to use only active voice on the blogs because that way, when you do use passive voice, you can use it for effect.

        I can’t believe this conversation is happening. It is so awesome!

      • Haha, it’s all Taylor’s fault… her “top posts of 2014” post made me go back and start reading some; in this instance, the post was written before I started blogging (slightly less than a year ago, that’s my excuse for missing it, Taylor!). But hey, if I agree, I don’t care when it was said πŸ˜‰

  3. A lot of great resources here. Thank you. I I have been battling the passive voice since grade 9, when my writing instructor went on regular rants about it. Despite that, it still occasionally creeps in and sucks the energy from my writing. Good to know there are so many ways to have technology catch it in the act!

  4. Pingback: Top Posts for 2014 | Taylor Grace

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