Six Ways to Make Your Writing More Effective – Part III

Passive vs. Active Voice

If you doubt your writing skills, OR you want to write more effectively, these tips are essential.

“As I walked silently down the street, I was being followed by two men. The sounds being made by them were disturbing. One was breathing noisily as he walked along with a slouching gait, seemingly uncaring about the pouring rain that was being driven by the wind. The other was walking delicately around the puddles and potholes that were filled with mud, occasionally sniffing delicately to show his distaste for the filthy night.”What do you think of that paragraph? Here are a couple of points that come to mind:

  • It’s terrible. The story it tells isn’t necessarily bad, but the writing is.
  • Wanna play count the adverbs?
  • How about find the passive voice?

Let’s rewrite it and fix some of the problems:

“As I glided down the street, two men followed me, making disturbing sounds. One slunk along, his breath rasping, seeming not to notice the wind driving the pouring rain into his face. The other picked his way around puddles and mud-filled potholes, occasionally sniffing in distaste at the filthy night.” The narrative is still a bit silly in places, but you can see that, overall, it reads much better. For one thing, it’s much less wordy—I’ve told the same story in about 1.5 fewer lines. In my next post, we’ll talk about how more precise word choice with verbs and adjectives can reduce the need to rely on clunky adverbs, but for not, let’s focus on voice.

Background

What made the difference in the two paragraphs? One big change was swapping passive voice for active voice wherever I could. Choosing active over passive voice can make a vital difference in your writing.

To recap: in this blog series that I started a couple of months ago, I’m covering:

  1. Organization
  2. Connections and Transitions
  3. Passive versus active voice
  4. Adverbs: to avoid or not to avoid?
  5. How to vary your sentence by length, structure, and type
  6. The vital need for a fresh set of eyes (even if they’re your own!)

My first two posts covered 1 and 2; now, let’s look at 3.

Passive versus Active Voice

Many of you may be wondering what on earth I’m talking about. What do I mean by “voice?”

I’m talking about verbs—not so much which verbs but how you use them. Let’s look at an example from my silly intro paragraph:

  1. I was being followed by two men.
  2. Two men followed me.

Both sentences say the same thing, yet there are a few differences. All differences, however, revolve around our topic of the day: sentence one is in passive voice, and sentence two in active voice.

Passive Voice

What is passive voice? Passive voice is formed by using a “be” verb—am, is, are, was, were, being, been—with the past participle of another verb. Examples:

  • The dog had been walked every day.
  • The email was written in 15-point font by some idiot.
  • I was born on a Sunday.
  • The chain was being swung precisely to catch the hook on the other side.
  • That kid has been run from one end of town to the other.

(Note: I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty here of what past participles are, but you should pick up on them from the examples in the sentences.)

Most of the time, you should avoid passive voice in writing. It tends to slow your writing’s pace, which can bog down the reader. Also, passive voice focuses attention on whom- or whatever is receiving the action, not who carries out the action. Going back to the sentences at the beginning of this section:

  1. I was being followed by two men.
  2. Two men followed me.

You can see how the focus of the first sentence is “I,” while in the second, it’s “two men.” In most cases, such as in this instance, that doesn’t make a huge difference to the story.

Active Voice

Active voice is when the subject of the sentence carries out the action. You form it by—well, by using an action verb. Examples:

  • Sue walked the dog every day.
  • Some idiot wrote the email in 15-point font.
  • My mother bore me on a Sunday. (We’ll get to how awkward this sentence is.)
  • The worker was swinging the chain precisely to catch the hook on the other side.
  • That kid’s bosses have run him from one end of town to the other.

You can see several differences between these sentences and their passive voice versions in the previous section. For one, in several of them, I’ve had to introduce a new subject to show who was “doing” the action. For another, the writing pace is more dynamic. The latter is the main reason to try to use active voice whenever you can.

Thinking back to the two sentences we started this section with:

  1. I was being followed by two men.
  2. Two men followed me.

Well, what if you want to focus the action on you? Go ahead and use passive voice?

Not so fast.

This is where creativity comes in: try to think of a way to reword the sentence so that you are the person carrying out the action. Here are some possible rewrites:

  1. I glided down the street, followed by two men.
  2. As I tip-toed down the street, I could tell two men were following me. (Note: verbs that end in -ing are present participles not past participles. They do not form passive voice.)

Do you see how, to do this, it’s not a simple matter of rearranging the words? You may have to change, add, or subtract words as well to make the sentence’s voice active.

Still, there are exceptions, times when you should use passive voice.

Exceptions and a Few Extra Points

As I said, this is the English language, so every rule has its exceptions. Let’s look at a few:

  • Trying to convert passive to active voice can just make everything awkward. For example, think about how I reworded “I was born on a Sunday” to “My mother bore me on a Sunday.” In Modern English, that just sounds . . . weird.
  • You need to keep the focus on the subject receiving the action. Check this out:

    • The toilet was being fixed, so I couldn’t use it.
      vs.
    • A plumber was fixing the toilet, so I couldn’t use it.

      Here, insistence on active voice brings some random plumber into the story that may distract from your point. Still, there may be alternatives that help you avoid the dilemma altogether: “The bathroom was out of service,” for example.
  • You want to deflect to not sound accusatory. Consider:

    • You have not paid your bill.
      vs
    • Your bill has not been paid.
  • You want to deflect to incorporate humor: For example, “Our Pekingese is afraid of the bathroom because she was, shall we say, ‘bathed’ in the toilet by my three-year-old.”

A word on “be” verbs

Of course, not all usage of “be” verbs forms passive voice: e.g., “I was hungry,” or “Fall is my favorite time of year.” Still, sometimes writers can over-rely on “be verbs.” In these cases, a quick word swap or sentence re-write can liven up the sentence.

Check it:

  • I was hungry, so I opened the fridge.
    Better: Hungry, I opened the fridge.
    Best: Stomach rumbling, I opened the fridge.
  • Jeff’s BMW was in the driveway, shining like a trophy in front of the dilapidated cottage.
    Better: Jeff’s BMW sat in the driveway, shining like a trophy in front of the dilapidated cottage.
    Best:
    Jeff’s BMW shone like a trophy in the front driveway of the dilapidated cottage.
  • Grandma will be 82 on her next birthday.
    Better: Grandma will turn 82 on her next birthday.
    Best: Grandma turns 82 on her next birthday.

Don’t be militant on this one. If you try so hard to avoid “be” verbs that your sentences get convoluted or sound strange, or if you have to write longer sentences or paragraphs to word things differently, you’re trying too hard.

Final Word

To sum up: when possible, choose active voice over passive voice in your writing. Remember: in passive voice, the subject of the sentence receives the action; in active voice, the subject acts.To achieve active voice, in most cases choose an action verb alone instead of a “be” verb + the past participle of a verb.

Passive voice can kill your writing’s pacing and tone. Active voice can keep it lively and compelling. Still, like most writing rules, there are exceptions; when in doubt, write what sounds most natural.

I hope this helps! We’ll continue this series in a couple of months using the same silly paragraph I started with. Till next time, happy writing!

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