Denise Robbins

Passive Voice

How to Bore Your Reader or Not

Have you ever submitted a manuscript to an editor and one of the feedback lines, if you receive any, is that you need to remove most if not all passive voice sentences?

“Uh-hem.” Yes, that is me raising my hand, waving it in the air for all to take notice.

After doing some research, I found out that passive voice is the number one mistake new writers make.

“Well, gee, somebody should have told me that before I finished writing those 350 pages.”

Now you are sitting there on your sofa or in your desk chair wondering, “What is passive voice?”

Good question and here is the answer.

Passive voice defined: Passive voice, in writing, results from the overuse of the "to be" verbs: am, is, was, were, be, being and been. Passive voice lacks the SVO pattern of a sentence.

I know, I know. “What is the SVO pattern?”

SVO stands for Subject Verb Object pattern. A good, clear sentence follows this structure. The sentence begins with a Subject that performs an action, then a Verb which is the action, and finally it has an Object that receives the action. (The object is not always there.)

Your head is still spinning so let me give you an example of a sentence with the correct use of SVO.

1. The car ran Jane over.

Subject = car, Verb = ran, Object = Jane

The following is bad SVO pattern which results in passive voice.

2. Jane was run over by the car.

Subject = Jane, Verb = was, Object = Car

Here is your visual clue. Close your eyes and visualize the word “ran”. You can see someone lifting their legs, their feet hitting the pavement, and arms pumping.

Close your eyes and visualize the word “was”. You can see nada, zero, and empty, completely blank.

A reader will never be able to close his or her eyes and envision your passive verbs (for one cannot see "be" or a picture that goes with "is").

Passive voice is “telling” and keeps your reader disengaged from your story. Often, it weakens a sentence by using more words than necessary. Just look at our examples above.

Passive voice is the opposite of active voice.

“What is active voice?”

So glad you asked.

Active voice defined: Active voice results from the use of action verbs like run, jump, hit, love, move, crash, remove, throw, etc. Active voice is lively and engages the reader.

A reader will be able to envision action verbs.

Let’s see some more examples.

Active: The door hit Jane in the face.
Passive: Jane was hit in the face by the door.
Passive: Jane was hit in the face.

Do you see the difference? First, there are fewer words used in the active sentence. Second, in the passive voice, Jane looks likes a dunce because she is sitting there waiting (passively) for the door to hit her. Third, in the active voice, the door (actively) goes and hits Jane. Slam! In the second passive voice example, what is missing? Who or what hit Jane in the face? As a reader, I kind of want to know that, otherwise, I will think she ran into a stiff wind or dead air.

One other hint that indicates the use of passive voice is the word “by” in a sentence. See the next examples.

Some more examples:

Active: Jane blocked Dick’s view of the lock with her body.
Passive: Dick’s view of the lock was blocked.
Passive: Dick’s view of the lock was blocked by Jane’s body.
Active: Dick kissed the nape of her neck.
Passive: Dick was kissing the nape of her neck.
Passive: Her nape was being kissed by Dick.

Now that I drilled active versus passive voice into your head, there are times when it is appropriate to use passive voice or forms of “to be”.

“When is it okay to use passive voice?”

Passive voice is how we speak so using passive voice in dialog is appropriate. (The fact that we speak in passive voice explains why we make the mistake of writing our fiction the same way.)

Use forms of “to be” to create vivid descriptions of your subjects.

Example: Jane was a tall, leggy woman with long, blonde hair.

Use the forms of “to be” to express ongoing action.

Example: Dick was already running late when he locked his keys in his car.
Example: Jane is moving to Seattle to work for Starbucks.

Now that you know the difference between passive (bad) and active (good) voice, how do you fix your story?

Many grammar check programs have settings that you select to encourage you to eliminate the passive voice sentences. Find that setting, turn it on, and watch how many sentences it underlines in green. (Word underlines the bad grammar with a green line.) How do I know this?

“Uh hem.” Yup, that is me waving my hands again. I write romantic suspense and the last thing I want to do is throw my reader out of the story because I wrote a “telling”, non-active sentence.

Can you just picture it?

Bad: Charley was being chased through the forest by a knife-wielding lunatic.
Good: A knife-wielding lunatic chased Charley through the forest.

If you do not have a grammar checker then go through your written work and highlight all the "to be" verbs (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, and been), then try to eliminate between one half and two thirds of your passive voice.

Converting passive voice sentences to active voice sentences is fairly easy. When you find a passive voice sentence the object will be at the beginning of the sentence instead of the end. Find the subject (who or what is doing the action) and put that word first. Find the object (what the subject is doing) and put that at the end.

Bad: Dick was bitten by the dog.
Good: The dog bit Dick.

Another good way to cut down on passive voice is to combine sentences, or revise them to convey your original thought in a new, more powerful, active way.

In conclusion, remember this: passive voice “tells” the story, while active voice “shows” the story to your reader. If you can commit this to memory, you are on your way to writing good fiction and future published author.

Worked for me!