Why Active Voice Strengthens Writing

Active, vivid prose is one of the fundamental tools to liven descriptions. Concrete nouns, action verbs, and active voice are essential parts of descriptive language.

Active voice is powerful and vigorous. Sentences written in active voice propel your story forward and keep the reader in the midst of what is happening.

Passive voice distances the reader from the action in the story. Sentences written in passive voice are less direct and bold.

ACTIVE VOICE vs PASSIVE VOICE

ACTIVE: Fran, the Neighborhood Watch Captain, rapped her walking stick on the pavement.

PASSIVE: The walking stick was rapped on the pavement by Fran, the Neighborhood Watch Captain.

The first sentence focuses on the subject of the sentence (Fran, the Neighborhood Watch Captain), who is the doer of the action (rapped the walking stick on the pavement).

The second sentence lacks boldness and is indirect. Passive voice means that the object of the action (here it is the walking stick) becomes the subject of the verb, although the object (walking stick) isn’t actually the one doing the action (rapping).

ACTIVE VOICE HACK

Most sentences only require a quick, easy fix: to make a passive sentence active, move the subject to the beginning of the sentence.

PASSIVE: The elm trees were pushed back and forth in the hurricane.

ACTIVE: The hurricane pushed the elm trees back and forth.

PASSIVE: The kitchen was gutted and remodeled by Grandpa.

ACTIVE: Grandpa gutted and remodeled the kitchen.

DECLUTTERING YOUR SENTENCES

Putting the subject in the beginning of the sentence helps declutter your prose. Many passive sentences are clunky and contain unnecessary words. Two common examples are filler phrases that begin with there and it.

CLUTTERED: It looks like the weather today is good to have a picnic in the park.

TIDY: The weather today looks good for a picnic in the park.

CLUTTERED: There are thirty-eight sheep hanging out in the meadow.

TIDY: Thirty-eight sheep hang out in the meadow.

Do you naturally write active or passive voice? Do you think writing in active voice is easy or challenging? Read this post by Kate Johnston | Author & Story Coach about how active voice can strengthen your writing.

USES FOR PASSIVE VOICE

Passive and cluttered sentences might be more appropriate than active voice in certain situations, for example in stock expressions:

We were dropped off at school.

I was paid today.

The young boy was hit by a car.

Another example of when passive voice may be preferable to active voice is if your subject itself is passive, behavior or personality wise. Conveying the passivity or weakness through description adds a symbolic layer.

Nibbles McCloon was bewildered by her fans’ disapproval of her pro-gun stance.

The sentence above shows that the fans’ disapproval minimizes Nibbles. The fans’ disapproval therefore becomes more important than Nibbles, the seeming subject; there is a shift in power. This can work quite well symbolically, and you only need it one time.

John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction, talks about situations where passive voice might be appropriate:

“The active voice is almost invariably more direct and vivid: ‘Your parrot bit me’ as opposed to (passive) ‘I was bitten by your parrot.’ (The choice in this case may depend on characterization. A timid soul fearful of giving offense might well choose the passive construction.)”

Active sentences are the best choice, whenever possible. You can still convey a passive or weak subject through active writing with strong word choices.

Do you naturally write in active or passive voice? Do you think writing in active voice is easy or challenging?

Have a writerly day!

 

15 thoughts on “Why Active Voice Strengthens Writing”

  1. Very enlightening! Passive voice sentences do plague most of my first draft work; it’s spotty though.

    Certainly, less time would be spent editing, should the fixes to achieve active voice would be employed while writing.

    • Jeff, it’s a tough one for me to get used to, admittedly. Active voice doesn’t come naturally to me. I find that in my Discovery notes, I write in passive voice. So I have to make an effort to switch to active when I start constructing my stories. Thanks so much for popping in and commenting!

  2. Ugh, I come from a time in academic writing that required passive writing for professional publications. And breaking those “rules” for fiction has been damn hard! But I’m getting there….

    • I didn’t come from an academic background, but I don’t think active voice was taught that much when I was in school. Or if it was, I was absent. 🙂 I have had to do a lot of relearning myself. It is very difficult.

      • Ah yes, I suspect if we go back and read many of the “classics,” we’ll find much more use of the passive voice. And omniscient narrators. And far more description of places and characters. Styles change, and we have to adapt to them to some degree—whether we want to or not!

  3. Like JM, my academic background made passive writing a way of life for me early on. Since I write fiction now, I’m over it, but every now and then, particularly when I write blog posts, that passive wants to slip back in.

    • I don’t feel like I was taught active voice in school. And when I think, it’s in the passive form, so I know my initial discovery notes come out that way. It’s tough to make the transition, but I can see the difference.

  4. I naturally write mostly in passive voice and have only learned about active voice in the past couple of years (so a year after I started writing again). It’s a challenge, and sometimes I work it out and other times, I don’t. It’s an ongoing process for me.

    • Same with me. Do you think in passive voice like I do? I wonder if that adds to the problem. I have to remind myself “Write Active!”

  5. I like to think that I’m a much more active writer now than in my misspent youth, LOL. But there is a season for passive construction (a very short one :D), as you say.

    • Hey Jilanne, indeed, we should celebrate that short season! I think the consensus here is that we all started off writing in passive voice. Makes we want to re-read classics to see if active voice is more a “thing” in recent years.

  6. I love your simplistic explanations Kate. Thanks so much. I’ll be sharing this in my next writer’s links post. 🙂 Oh, and yay, your new blog came with no problems to my inbox. 🙂

  7. Like other commenters said, coming from an academic background I used passive voice almost exclusively. But the world of blogging has opened my mind, and allowed me to be active. I like active much more than passive, truth be known.

    • I feel that I did not learn about active voice in school, and that it only became an important lesson in recent years. I see the difference when I make the effort to write in active, but it’s not a natural state of writing for me.

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