Posted by: Kathy Temean | February 4, 2013

Why & How to Avoid a Passive Voice

“Get Rid of Passive Voice” by Joan Y. Edwards

joanY“A style that consists of passive constructions will sap the reader’s energy. The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb style–in clarity and vigor–is the difference between life and death for a writer.” -William Zinsser On Writing Well.

The detective waited. He said to the police officer. “I saw it with my own eyes. This author used passive voice in a manuscript.”

The policeman took off his cap, scratched his head and said to the author, “Get rid of it.”

The author put both hands out palms up. “But, Officer, I don’t know how.”

The detective and officer threw up their hands in disgust. They pointed at the author and said, “Learn about passive voice in 24 hours or we’ll book you.”

I hope you enjoyed my humor. I certainly hope you don’t get in a situation like that. However, if you do, I’m here to help you.

Active voice helps insure clarity of meaning. Every word in your manuscript should have a reason for being there. You want each word to carry a clear message in your manuscript. If your manuscript has too many words, eliminating sentences that use passive voice will trim your word count and add to your clarity at the same time. Rambling on and on in passive voice loses readers. Active voice ropes them in and keeps them reading your manuscript from beginning to the very end.

Here is an explanation with examples to help you understand about voice. There are two voices: Active Voice and Passive Voice. Active voice has the noun subject (doer) verb order.  The verb to be used as a linking verb shows the condition or existence of the subject. Passive Voice usually uses a form of the verb to be and a past participle of a verb: is, are, was, were, being, had been. The subject is not named before the verb in a sentence using passive voice.

In active voice, the subject does the action. The order is simple – subject followed by verb.

David threw the ball. Who threw the ball? David threw the ball. Examples of sentences using active voice:

  1. Stephanie lost the money.
  2. Mother bought jewelry.
  3. James had sung the songs.
  4. Nellie was writing letters.
  5. Phillip was building the dams.
  6. The hurricane had damaged the houses.

In passive voice, the subject (doer) is not before the verb. The subject is absent or it may come in another part of the sentence.

The ball was thrown. The ball did what? Nothing. It was the receiver of the action. On its own, a ball can’t do anything.

The sentences that follow are in the passive voice. No one knows who did the losing, the buying, or the building. It is not mentioned in the sentence before the verb. The subject is missing. The doer of the action is missing. In passive voice, the direct object of a sentence is written before the verb where the subject usually is.  #6 is still a passive voice sentence because hurricane is not before the verb damaged.

Examples of sentences using passive voice where the subject – the doer is missing.

  1. Money was lost.
  2. Jewelry was bought.
  3. The songs had been sung.
  4. The letters were being written.
  5. The dams were being built.
  6. Houses had been damaged by the hurricane.

Think about it.  It’s harder for people to read and figure out what’s really going on when authors use the passive voice. Therefore, editors and readers like to read books written in active voice. Search for the passive voice in your manuscript. If you use Microsoft Word, it has a review tool to check spelling and grammar. If a sentence is in the passive voice, it will tell you and suggest that you revise the sentence. Remember when you change the passive voice to the active voice, put the subject (the doer) before the verb.

Click this link to take Joan’s Active-Passive Voice Quiz

Joan is giving three workshops online with the Muse Online Writers Conference in October 7-13, 2013.

http://themuseonlinewritersconference.com/ In August or September, they will open for registration.  

Here are the 3 workshops:

How to Write a Pitch That Sells

A Five Day Workshop to help you formulate an enticing, magnetic pitch that no editor, agent, or reader could turn down.  Attendees will study the pros, the pitches for the best sellers in your genre and do exercises to build your pitch  skills, create and improve a pitch.

30 Ways to Correct, Trim, and Enhance Your Manuscript

Writer will learn how to enhance you manuscript by correcting grammar/punctuation, using vivid showing words with emotional impact and cutting the words that don’t carry the plot, character, and emotional theme forward. Plus a whole lot more.

Become a PubSubber

This workshop provides a way to encourage and empower writers and artists to submit their work for publication
often. Each time you submit a quality work, you increase your chance to be published. This workshop has detailed steps and resources to build the necessary skills to get your submission in the mailbox or sent through email on your personal submission day.

Joan Y. Edwards is an author/illustrator of the delightful picture book, Flip Flap Floodle. She is a consultant, motivational speaker, and teacher. She offers goal-setting, positive thinking, and writing workshops for adults and children. She is a member of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and Catholic Writers Guild. Her articles have been published in SCBWI-Carolinas Pen & Palette and SCBWI Bulletin. Her website, http://www.joanyedwards.com

I’ll remind you of these when registration begins, so you don’t miss signing up if you are interested.

Talk tomorrow,

Kathy


Responses

  1. That is probably the simplest, most clear explanation of passive vs. active voice I’ve heard. Thank you, Joan and Kathy! 😀

    • Dear Donna Marie,
      What a compliment you gave me! Thank you. I hope it helps you kick unnecessary passive voice out of your manuscripts. Are there any other subjects about writing that confuse you? I might tackle explaining them, too.
      Celebrate you in as many ways as possible today.
      Never Give Up
      Joan Y. Edwards

      • Joan, you are the SWEETEST thing! Thank you 🙂

        See, my brain doesn’t work well (won’t get into THAT) when it comes to what I absorb and what I can recall. I often forget the definitions of words I know and use, for that matter! Your explanation was simple and clear, so I know it will stick 😀 Yay!

        Of course, there ARE other things I get confused with, but—I can’t recall! lol

  2. Dear Kathy,
    Thank you very much for honoring me by posting my “Get Rid of Passive Voice” on your blog. It was really nice of you to list the workshops I’m giving at the Muse Online Writers Conference in October, too. You are a jewel. Your blog has great information for writers and illustrators. I enjoyed reading several of your articles.
    Celebrate you in as many ways as possible today.
    Never Give Up
    Joan Y. Edwards

  3. This is a good reminder and helpful examples. Thaks for posting this.

    • Dear Rosi,
      Thanks for leaving a comment. I’m glad that you thought they were good reminders and helpful examples. Celebrate you. never Give Up. Joan Y. Edwards

  4. Way to go Joan! First time I have seen a friend of mine on Kathy’s wonderful blog!! This post continues to lurk in my mind as I hunt and delete “is” “was” and “were.” (even from this comment!)

    • Dear Carol,
      I am honored to be your friend. I am really excited that Kathy shared my blog post about Passive Voice on her blog and info about the workshops I’ll give in October. I appreciate you posting a link to my blog on Facebook, otherwise Kathy might not have found it. Kathy has fantastic blog posts. I am in good company here.

      Celebrate your writing talents.
      Never Give Up
      Joan Y. Edwards

  5. This is a great post, and it’s something that I debate sometimes. Is it never acceptable to use passive voice? I never say never. e.g.
    The girls were exhausted from the shopping trip. Dresses were bought. Jewelry was ogled. Money disappeared into the hands of greedy merchants.

    • Dear Tracey,
      Thanks for writing. It is acceptable at times.to have passive voice in mysteries where you don’t know who did it.
      Active Voice
      The girls were exhausted. Girls is the subject. Were is the verb. It is in the subject verb pattern.. Exhausted is an adjective describing the girls.
      Money disappeared. What disappeared? Money. Money is the subject.

      Passive: Dresses were bought. Jewelry was ogled.
      They would sound better in active voice. We don’t know who bought dresses. We don’t know who ogled the jewelry.

      I hope this helps.
      Celebrate your writing skills
      Never Give Up
      Joan Y. Edwards.

  6. Dear Donna Marie,
    I am so glad that you think my explanation was so clear that you’ll remember it. Thumbs up for you.

    Celebrate you and your sense of humor.
    Never Give Up
    Joan Y. Edwards

  7. Is it still okay to have some passive voice in your manuscript as long as it’s kept to a minimum? I read that a few are acceptable, like two or three.

    • Renee,

      Of course. I think these are things to consider when doing your revision. Most of the time your sentence will be stronger when using an active voice, but there may be spots where you may want a softer passive voice. Just make sure that you are not using an active voice for a reason. Good question.

      Kathy

  8. Thanks for this great post, and now I have ticked the ‘passive words’ box in Word. Didn’t know I could do that.

  9. I love reading passive voice; therefore, I will not refrain from writing it deliberately and shamelessly.


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