For those of you who couldn’t make the historical line chat last Thursday night, we discussed passive voice. Since my wireless kept cutting off and I didn’t get to have my say—and, believe me, I can wax eloquent about weeding out passive voice—I thought I’d post my thoughts here, where no one can interrupt my rant. (LOL)
First of all, I’ll just recap the basics for those who missed the chat. A sentence is in passive voice when the subject isn’t doing the acting. If you’re confused by this, ask yourself: “Who’s the star of this sentence? Who is this sentence about?” Next, ask yourself: “Does this sentence show my star in action?” Let’s start with a simple example:
1) ACTIVE: Leah read the book.
PASSIVE: The book was read by Leah.
Leah is the star of the first sentence, and she’s active: she’s reading. In the second sentence, the book has taken the starring role. That’s fine if it’s a magic book and has plans to entertain her by singing or dancing. Sadly, that’s not the case. Leah is supposed to be our star, but she’s been relegated to the end of the sentence.
Here’s another example:
2) ACTIVE: The wind blew the leaves from the trees.
PASSIVE: The leaves were blown by the wind.
Once again, look for the star of the sentence. This time the wind is doing the acting. When the leaves are put first, the sentence loses its power. [You can, however, give the leaves the starring role by changing the verbs in the second sentence to active voice. For example: The leaves fluttered to the ground. The leaves floated through the air. The leaves drifted in the breeze.]
Here’s one final example:
3) ACTIVE: Fear gripped her.
PASSIVE: She felt afraid.
Who is doing the acting in these sentences? It’s not the heroine. Fear has taken control. So give fear the starring role. Show its power. Which of these sentences feels scarier? Can you see how active voice makes sentences stronger and more immediate?
One good clue to help you identify passive voice is to look for was and were.* Passive sentences may also contain other forms of to be verbs. (Check for am, is, are, or been.) Other verbs that can signal passive voice include words such as seem, appear, and felt. Although was and were are sometimes used in active sentences, 95% of the time (or more), they signal passive voice. Another indicator is the word by following the verb. Look, too, at sentence structure. Often in passive sentences, the subject becomes the caboose added to the end. Most (although not all) sentences in active voice begin with the star. Give the star of your sentence the leading role. Pair him/her/it with a strong, active verb and watch the transformation. Your prose will go from boring to exciting.
Here’s another tip: You can make the verbs stronger in an active sentence much more easily than in a passive one. Try the verbs below in both the passive and active sentences. The verbs fit into the active sentences much better than they do the passive ones. That’s another reason passive writing is weak. Usually a more generic verb sounds better in a passive sentence. So you add to the boredom of a passive sentence with a ho-hum verb.
SENTENCE 1) scanned, skimmed, paged through, slammed down
SENTENCE 2) whipped, shook, whistled through
It’s not easy to make the switch from passive to active, but you’ll be glad you did. Active voice gives your writing an immediacy and an excitement that’s missing in passive voice. For those of you who are still uncertain about changing sentences from passive to active, feel free to ask questions or post comments. If you need additional help, check out the articles in the Greenhouse.
*NOTE: Most often the words was and were signal passive voice, but there are some times when they don’t. For those of you who are just learning to identify passive constructions, I don’t want to confuse you by including those here. Concentrate on the examples above for the moment. In another blog I’ll include info on other uses of was and were and will also explain when to use passive voice. Yep, there are a few times when passive is needed. These uses are few and far between, but they are important. I’ll also add some thoughts on why sentences such as “He appeared to be happy”are NOT good choices. But for now, why not practice writing proactive prose? Your editors will thank you!