If you’ve spent any amount of time in writerly circles or gone searching for writerly advice, you’ve probably run into this advice: don’t use passive voice! Use active voice instead.
But what does this mean? Is this rule absolute, or is there some leeway? And most importantly, how can we identify passive voice in our work and switch it over to active voice?
What is Passive Voice?
Passive voice is when a sentence centers the recipient of the action (the object) instead of the subject. When using passive voice, the object becomes the centerpiece of the sentence, instead of the thing doing the action (the subject).
Active voice is when a sentence centers the subject, or the thing in the sentence which does the action.
If you’re still a little confused, don’t worry! We’ll cover concrete examples of both of these in a minute.
Is Passive Voice Bad?
Well, not always.
Like any grammar or writerly advice, this isn’t an absolute rule. It’s true that we should keep an eye out for passive voice and almost always correct it to active voice, especially in prose. However, passive voice has its uses.
When Is Passive Voice Allowed?
There are a few cases where passive voice is preferable to active voice. We’ve outlined a few of them here:
The subject is unknown/irrelevant/hidden
If we have an instance where we don’t know who did the action, passive voice might be necessary. Active voice centers the subject, and sometimes, we don’t know who the subject is. If someone is murdered and we don’t know who murdered them, we might say “Mark was murdered” instead of “Someone murdered Mark.”
Similarly, the subject of a sentence may not be the most important part. If the object takes precedence, passive voice might pull it into focus. “Mayor Douglas was elected on Tuesday,” for example, is perfectly acceptable if Mayor Douglas is the sentence’s main focus.
We also might want to use passive voice to hide the subject. This can be useful when writing copy for customer service: “there was a mistake on our end” reads much less pointed than “we made a mistake,” for example. Journalists can also use this to obscure the subject in an unclear or developing case: “Several were injured in a Smalltown shooting” blames no one, while “John Doe injures fellow citizens in Smalltown shooting” makes a direct accusation.
Finally, in creative writing, we may want to use passive voice to create distance. In the aftermath of a traumatic incident, for example, we might use passive voice to convey the emotional distance and detachment the character feels in that moment. However, this should be used very intentionally and sparingly–we’ll talk about why in a minute.
Why is Passive Voice Bad?
We know now that passive voice can be useful in some situations. But these situations are the exception, and not the norm. Basically, unless a sentence would be awkward and unwieldy without passive voice, it should be active. It would be nearly impossible to list every instance in which we shouldn’t use passive voice, so instead, here are a few big reasons why we should avoid passive voice.
1. It hides your subject
Usually, we don’t want to hide the subject. This is especially true when it comes to creative writing. The goal of any creative writer is to create an immersive, tangible experience for the reader. The reader should feel like they’re along for the ride, and this means we want them as close as possible to our world and its characters.
Passive voice creates a barrier. Like we outlined earlier, sometimes that barrier is useful for conveying distance, but we almost never want that distance. De-centering the subject puts the reader further from that subject, and by extension, further from the character, the world, and what’s going on in it.
2. It makes your sentences too long
Writing in passive voice often involves tacking on extra gerunds, clauses, and clunky verbiage. One of the most satisfying parts of switching from passive voice to active voice is watching all those extra words come off.
Conveying information efficiently to your reader goes a long way in helping them feel immersed. If they have to sort through a complicated, passive sentence, they’ll not only have a hard time connecting to the material, but they might also get confused.
It’s not a hard rule that your sentences should be as short as possible, but it is important to make them as efficient as possible. Filler words, filter words, and passive voice all act as a fog which obscures the meaning of a sentence. Shake ‘em loose, and the reader can get right to the good stuff.
3. It makes your sentences dull
Passive voice also just kinda doesn’t hit the same as active voice. Think of passive voice as describing something to someone secondhand. We use it when we tell stories to people in real life all the time: “It was raining, and the car was making this weird noise, and I thought for sure we were gonna die” is perfectly fine when we’re telling our friends about our crazy weekend out, but we can do better on the page.
What was the rain like? What kind of noise was the car making? Conveying this directly to the reader will evoke that fear and terror in the reader. Instead of being told the situation was scary, the reader will feel scared, and that’s a much more powerful reading experience.
How to Fix Passive Voice with Examples
Without further ado, let’s switch some sentences from passive to active voice together to get an idea of how this process looks in practice.
PASSIVE: “Sarah was angry.”
This doesn’t really put us in Sarah’s shoes. We know what anger is, but we don’t feel Sarah’s anger. What does ‘angry’ look like on Sarah? What does ‘angry’ mean here?
ACTIVE: “Sarah’s fists clenched.”
This paints a much clearer picture. Clenched fists implies anger, and it implies a violent anger. We can see Sarah’s anger instead of having it relayed to us secondhand, and this makes for a much more impactful experience.
PASSIVE: “It was raining on the dock where the children were playing.”
We’re told it’s raining, and we’re told children are playing. Like the example before, this doesn’t give us a great idea of what the scene feels like. We don’t know what the rain feels or looks like, and we don’t have any memorable details about the children to make this scene feel immediate.
ACTIVE: “Rain sprinkled the dock. The children shrieked with laughter and tried to catch raindrops in their mouths.”
Okay, now we have some more information. We know the rain is sprinkling, as opposed to a torrential downpour. Having the children laugh and try to catch the rain makes us feel more connected to them as people. We can see these actions clearly, and that makes it more tangible.
PASSIVE: “The entire car was cleaned out by Susan.”
This isn’t awful. However, it’s a little wordy. Remember what we said earlier about passive voice making our sentences unnecessarily clunky? This is a great example. While this isn’t incorrect, we can improve upon it.
The subject of this sentence is ‘Susan.’ The verb is ‘clean,’ and the thing being cleaned (the object) is the ‘the entire car.’ Let’s put Susan at the front of the sentence and see what happens.
ACTIVE: “Susan cleaned the entire car.”
Well, would you look at that? It’s crisp, it’s clear, it’s delicious. All we did was move a few things around, and we ended up with a more efficient sentence. The passive example wasn’t grammatically incorrect, but the active example is the most efficient, effective way to phrase it.
PASSIVE: “The kitchen was being cleaned by Mabel every evening.”
This is another example of a clunky passive sentence. See that be-verb next to a gerund? That’s our sign that things aren’t quite as efficient as they could be. We also have Mabel, the subject, dragging along at the end of the sentence, so it takes the reader way too long to get to her.
ACTIVE: “Mabel cleaned the kitchen every evening.”
Bam! Mabel’s here! We can see her! We don’t have to go searching for her in the slog–the eye is drawn straight to Mabel, and this makes a direct line to her action, which is cleaning the kitchen every evening.
PASSIVE: “Taylor was looking at her phone with disgust.”
Okay, so, Taylor’s disgusted, sure. But what does her digust look like? How is she looking at her phone? We don’t have enough information to connect us to this scene.
ACTIVE: “Taylor wrinkled her nose at her phone, scoffing.”
See how it’s just a little spicier? Maybe in context, Taylor’s a happy-go-lucky character, and this action shows us that she’s really annoyed. We get the disgust without having to be told she’s disgusted, which makes us more invested. We also have a clearer picture of what’s going on right now, and we don’t have to do any guesswork.
PASSIVE: John was hit three times in the stomach. He was trying to dodge the fourth it, but he didn’t move quickly enough, and then he was on the ground.
Passive voice is perhaps most pernicious in action sequences. We want action sequences to be tight so the reader feels the fast-paced nature of it all–long, clunky sentences and roundabout verbiage can suck the urgency out of a fight scene. And for some reason, this is the place where writers most often fall into passive voice–go figure!
ACTIVE: The masked intruder hit John three times in the stomach. He tried to dodge the fourth, but he didn’t move quickly enough, and he collapsed.
Just by removing passive voice, this sequence becomes sharper. We’ve taken out the clunkiness and we’re left with just the action, and that’s what we want. Ideally, we’d take this a step further and include stronger verbs, but even just this one improvement makes a huge difference.
Let’s do another action example, just for kicks and giggles.
PASSIVE: “While debris was raining from the sky, Stacy was wrestling with the bad guys and trying not to get crushed.”
This is a little confusing. We have kind of a race to get to the end of the sentence, and it’s unclear whether Stacy’s trying to avoid getting crushed by debris, or by the bad guys. Also, we don’t have a clear idea of the fight Stacy’s in. Is she killing it? Is she struggling? What’s the debris like, and should we be worried?
ACTIVE: “Concrete crumbled from the skyscrapers, smashing cars into smithereens. Grunting with effort, Stacy threw her opponent onto the hood of a car. A hunk of metal crushed it instantly–his boot stuck out of the rubble.”
See how we can follow this action? We don’t have to guess what Stacy’s doing–we’re watching it happen in front of us. We know she’s got this fight under control, but we also know that this debris is serious, so we’re maybe still a little worried about her. This creates a more complicated, dynamic reader experience.
Have you ever needed to use passive voice? Do you have any examples of how to turn passive voice into active voice? Let us know in the comments!