“I think unsure writers also feel the passive voice somehow lends their work authority, perhaps even a quality of majesty. If you find instruction manuals and lawyers’ torts majestic, I guess it does.” —Stephen King’s On Writing
Stephen King states it perfectly. How many times have you, as a reader, felt intrigued by an instruction manual or legal document? Do you begin, with enthusiasm, the terms of service before selecting “I agree”? Or do you skim over them and only refer to the visuals when assembling the item? If you said yes to the latter, keep reading. If you said yes to the former, well, I’m not sure what to do with you. You probably have a bright future in the legal field, so there’s that. For all the normal people, however, in this article, I’ll be addressing the topic of passive voice and how to avoid it in your own writing.
With passive voice, something is being done to the subject. With active voice, the subject is doing something.
The dog was picked up by Timmy.
We’ll start with an example for those who are hearing about this for the first time. This sentence is a prime example of passive voice. Notice how timid and bland it reads. Let’s reword it.
Timmy picked up the dog.
This sentence is an example of active voice. It’s direct and confident. The writer sounds sure of himself and nothing is left unsaid.
In the first sentence, notice how you could write it as The dog was picked up. and leave off the last two words. With passive voice, the sentence will either end with by [noun] or it will make perfect sense to add that phrase to the end of it. So as you’re editing your manuscript, try adding by [whatever noun you choose] to the end of each sentence. If it makes sense, you’re using passive voice and need to reword it. Also, look for the word was when proofreading your manuscript. It’s another indicator that you’re using passive voice.
The lake was dried up by too much sun and lack of rain. —Passive
Too much sun and lack of rain dried up the lake. —Active
Starting to see a pattern here? Good. Again, was is present in the first sentence and it ends with by too much sun and lack of rain. The second sentence is simple and reads much more smoothly without those tell-tale signs.
Always choose active when you can. Readers want excitement and boldness from you, especially during an action scene. I can’t count how many times I have read or edited a novel where it felt more like things were happening in slow motion—like the bullets were literally flying at a snail’s pace—all because the author made this and a couple other mistakes (we’ll discuss those in another article). You want those action scenes to be a rush for your readers. You want those bullets to whizz by, and you want your main character to jump into action. Unless you’re actually going for the slow-motion effect you see in movies, you definitely don’t want your readers to visualize it that way. And even then, there are other techniques you should utilize to express to your audience the intensity of the situation. No one should be falling asleep while reading your novel. And if you stick to active voice, no one will.
There are other things I believe weaken your narrative and slow down the action, but I’ll get to them in future articles. And sure, there are times for passive voice—like when you don’t know who is doing something to the subject. You can’t necessarily name the person, place, or thing if you haven’t yet identified it. You’ll find this more often in mystery novels or a scene where the reader doesn’t yet have all the facts. As always, use your own judgment. Quoting one of my recently posted memes on writing: “The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions.” —Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
Jessica Victoria Fisette is the author of The Soul Reaper series, Fragments, and The Aldurian Chronicles. Her hobbies include discovering the benefits of natural medicine, wine tasting, and trying new recipes in the kitchen. She likes to unwind by typing out a scene or two in her latest obsession or indulging in a good book. Having been passionate about writing since she was a little girl, she is constantly coming up with new ideas for future stories and creating unique, strongwilled—albeit flawed—characters to overcome the difficult obstacles she places before them. Having spent all her life in rural Southeast Texas, she appreciates the tranquility of country living and hopes to implement such a love for nature into her beautiful, ever-so-curious little girl.
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King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. NY: Simon and Schuster, 2000. pp. 122- 4.