An Author's Guide to Correcting Passive Voice
Passive writing. It’s the bane of many authors, editors, and readers. But it’s sometimes hard to catch in our own writing—and even if we can catch it, is it that big a deal?
Don’t get me wrong, passive writing has its place in your work. However, that place is a lot less frequent than most people think it is. That’s why we’re going to talk about a few things in this article to help improve your writing, including:
- Understanding the passive voice in your writing
- Why and when passive writing should be corrected
- How to identify passive writing
- Techniques for more active writing
If you’re ready to become a stronger writer, let’s get started.
Understanding Passive Voice in Writing
To understand the passive voice and why it’s generally considered weaker and usually “meh,” we need to cover a few definitions. Bear with me, but understanding these definitions is critical for figuring out how to improve your writing.
Subject: The noun the sentence is about. In most cases, it’s the thing doing something. Let’s pretend our subject is Tommy.
Verb: An action being performed. If we’re going with writing as our verb, then our very, very basic sentence in past tense might be: Tommy wrote.
Object: The thing being acted upon or answers the question of “what?” or “whom?” In this case, let’s say a book is the object. So our sentence is: Tommy wrote a book.
That’s a complete, albeit kind of boring sentence. It’s also written in the active voice, which we’ll cover in a second.
Passive writing occurs when the subject receives an action or is acted upon by the object. If we rearrange our previous example into a passive sentence, it would look like this:
The book was written by Tommy.
Keen eyes might pick up that the book is now the subject of the sentence, and it’s being acted upon (written) by the object (Tommy).
Not all passive sentences need an explicit object, either. Here is another example with just a subject and verb:
The report was filed.
Just to drive the point home before we go too much further, here are some more examples of basic sentences using passive writing:
- The email was sent by my boss.
- My first novel is remembered fondly by my readers.
- Her sword was plunged through the necromancer.
- The package had been delivered by the courier.
- The speech is written by a team of subject matter experts.
Active Voice vs. Passive Voice
So what’s the opposite (and preferred version) of passive writing? As you’ve likely guessed, it’s active writing.
Active writing is when the subject does a thing. It’s the default way people communicate. It’s dynamic, pushes the reader forward, and is as clear as possible.
In the next section, we’re going to talk about why passive writing isn’t usually the best and when it’s okay to use. For now, just understand what the active voice is and check out the examples from above rewritten to be a bit more active.
- My boss sent the email.
- My readers fondly remember my first novel.
- She plunged her sword through the necromancer.
- The courier delivered the package.
- A team of subject matter experts wrote the speech.
Why Passive Voice Should be Corrected
Now it’s time for the good stuff. We know what passive and active writing are, but why do we prefer the latter to the former?
The thing is, passive writing isn’t terrible. It’s not the end of the world if your book has some passive voice in it. In fact, it will feel silly to have a book (or article, blog, newsletter, etc.) without any passive writing in it at all.
So let’s chat about why passive writing tends to be weaker, when you can use it, and how to strike a good balance between the two structures.
Impact on Clarity
Most prominently, passive writing muddles your sentence. It adds ambiguity that forces your reader to decipher what you mean.
When you’re writing with a passive voice, it takes the reader half a sentence just to figure out who is doing something. In isolation, that’s not a big deal. Once you’ve written your fifth, fiftieth, or five-hundredth sentence in a passive voice, it starts to wear your reader down.
Not even mystery readers have the mental stamina to endure an overload of passive sentences.
Furthermore, the passive voice can be less clear than its active counterparts. Consider the following:
The new curfew was put in place.
That’s great. Who put the new curfew in place? Why? What are the ramifications?
An active sentence doesn’t need to answer all these questions—in fact, doing so would likely result in something that’s too wordy.
But look at what happens when the previous example is made active:
The governor’s decree put a new curfew in place.
By focusing on active writing, we’ve already provided more information for our readers to help them understand what’s going on.
Impact on Readability
In addition to the confusion created, passive writing also harms the readability of your writing. In most situations, passive writing is simply more verbose than active writing.
Let’s revisit our examples from earlier:
The email was sent by my boss. / My boss sent the email.
My first novel is remembered fondly by my readers. / My readers fondly remember my first novel.
Her sword was plunged through the necromancer. / She plunged her sword through the necromancer.
The package was delivered by the courier. / The courier delivered the package.
The speech was written by a team of subject matter experts. / A team of subject matter experts wrote the speech.
In almost every one of those simple examples, save for one, there are 20-33% less words when written with an active voice.
Sure, that’s only two or three words in each example. But the fun thing about percentages is that they scale well. In a 100,000-word book, 20% longer means you’re making your reader consume 20,000 more words because… well, because you opted to ignore advice about passive writing.
Combined with the reduced clarity inherent in this voice, the passive writing creates a much slower pace than its active counterpart. Your book won’t just be unnecessarily long, it will feel even longer than that.
Appropriate Instances for Passive Voice
I’ve been bashing the passive voice quite a bit (and rightfully so, in most situations). But, as I said before, there is a time and place for authors to use passive writing.
Unfortunately for us authors, it’s not a cut-and-dry decision. Where and when you use the passive voice is up to you. And your line editor (and they’ll be a lot less forgiving about it).
That said, there are a few indicators you can check to see if you can fall into this slower, more verbose style of writing.
Check your genre: Readers are largely responsible for writing conventions. What they want becomes what you should aim for. So check your genre (and subgenre) to see how common passive writing is. Epic fantasy readers, for example, are more willing to read through slower, wordier passages that sound poetic. Urban fantasy readers, on the other hand, tend to prefer a faster pace and more dynamic writing style.
What does the scene call for?: If you’re in the middle of a sword fight, you might not want to shut down the adrenaline pump with some passive writing. However, if you’re describing a beautiful oasis in a cli-fi desert, passive writing can help induce a sense of awe.
Is the action more important?: Because passive writing tends to push the subject towards the end of the sentence, it helps emphasize the action rather than what’s being acted upon. “The family was hit hard by the layoffs.” places the importance on the impact of the layoffs rather than the layoffs themselves.
Balancing Active and Passive Voice in Writing
If writing with a passive voice can be okay, how do we find that sweet balance between it and active writing? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t a 50/50 split.
Most of your writing should be active. Use passive writing like any other literary tool, like metaphors and similes: sprinkle them in for emphasis where they will be most impactful.
When in doubt, read a few paragraphs out loud. You’ll recognize fairly quickly when you’ve written too much in a passive voice.
Focus on other books in your genre, too. Read a few different scenes to see how your favorite authors balance passive and active writing. And read specifically for that, even make notes if you can.
Identifying Passive Voice in Your Writing
If you want to find passive voice in your writing or others’, you need to know what you’re looking for. Sure, it’s easy to figure out if simple sentences are active or passive, but what about longer, more complex phrases?
On top of that, some sentences will look passive, but really aren’t.
So let’s figure out how to identify the passive voice in your writing.
Analyze Sentence Structure
The easiest way to identify passive writing is by looking at its structure. In most cases, this will be an easy giveaway.
Just remember our definitions of subject, object, and verb. If you have two nouns in a sentence, look to see which is acting and which is being acted upon.
If the one doing the action is written towards the end of the sentence (i.e, The package was delivered by the courier), it is often written with a passive voice.
Look for “To Be” or “By The”
Sentence structure is a glaring trait that will help you catch most passive sentences, but there is something all passive writing has that you may have noticed through our examples so far.
Every passive sentence ever written contains a version of the verb “to be” or the phrase “by the/X.”
To be can be conjugated as: am, are, been, is, was, or were.
I am selected by the council.
We are watched by the guards.
Sam has been scolded by Mrs. Monroe.
Tally is placed at the back of the line.
The fire was blown out by the wind.
The rebels were defeated.
You might notice that all but two of those examples also included “by the” or “by X” (Mrs. Munroe, in the one example). However, the two examples without this phrase could include it to make the sentence less vague:
Tally is placed at the back of the line by the DMV worker.
The rebels were defeated by an alien race.
Moral of the story? Keep your eyes peeled for “to be” and “by the/X” when looking for passive writing.
“To Be” Doesn’t Always Indicate the Passive Voice
A lot of people, a younger version of myself included, will get inspired to eradicate as much passive writing as possible and seek out any instance of “to be” to change.
But you need to remember our definitions and sentence structure.
People, places, and things in your novel are allowed to be without the sentence automatically being passive. It just so happens that this verb is always around when something is written passively, but it doesn’t mean every instance of it is passive.
The sword was a gleaming silver, its edge as sharp as my wit.
You’ll notice was above. But that’s simply describing an attribute of the sword. There isn’t an action being applied to the blade, just a description.
If you want to become an expert on active and passive voice, you need to be able to identify those distinctions.
Techniques for Correcting Passive Voice
My young padawan, you’ve come quite a long way so far. Not only have we become experts on what passive voice is and why you might want (or not want) to use it, but we also know how to find it in our stories.
So what do we do once we’ve spotted these pesky phrases? In most cases, the answer is to switch to active writing, but let’s check out all our options.
Identifying the Subject and Verb
Not to sound like a broken record, but think back to the foundations of what makes a sentence active or passive. Once you’re able to quickly identify the subject and verb in a sentence (and the object, if there is one), you’ll become much more efficient at identifying passive writing.
Not only that, but you’ll become more proficient at recognizing if the passive voice is helpful or more of a hindrance.
Simplifying Complex Sentences
The more complicated your sentences, the more likely they are to be passive. That’s not to say all long sentences are passive or all of your sentences should be simple and active.
Like all things, you’re looking for a good balance. Refer back to your genre and your writing style to figure out what that balance looks like, but try to be as objective as possible about what you’re putting on the page.
If you have four long, complex, passive sentences in a row, something’s gotta change. You might convince yourself it’s good, but your readers are going to find it dull.
That said, you can mitigate some of the drawbacks of passive sentences by shortening them and making them more concise, while still leaving them in a passive voice.
Using Strong, Active Verbs
Want to know what’s worse than passive writing? Weak passive writing.
When you find passive sentences that you want to hang around, think about ways you can strengthen the sentence in other ways.
Specifically, see what you can do to make your verbs more interesting. Let’s use “The orc was stabbed.” I love my fantasy. Consider stronger verbs than something as common as stabbed.
The orc was run through.
The orc was pierced by the exquisite blade.
The orc was pinned to the wall by the blade.
It’s tough to see the wider impact such a small change can have without context, but I think it’s clear enough that a few tweaks to the verb can enhance a passive sentence to make it more interesting and engaging.
Revising to Active Voice
The easiest (and most common) fix is just to make your sentences active instead of passive. To do this, you need to do a little rearranging, and maybe add a word or two.
Specifically, you need to make your subject do the thing. Using our previous example of the unfortunate orc, we want to make the sword the subject.
The sword pierced the orc, pinning it to the wall.
Just like passive writing, though, you don’t want to overdo it. If 100% of your sentences are active, you’re doing something wrong. Odds are, your pacing is off and your readers are struggling to find a good flow.
That said, always remember to look for that healthy balance of active and passive writing. Your book should be primarily written with an active voice, so switching weak passive sentences to more dynamic active ones is usually a safe bet.
Try using AI
Don’t get angry at me for including this forbidden idea. There’s a lot of talk these days about artificial intelligence (AI) pushing writers out. If you’ve spent any time with ChatGPT, though, you know it’s going to be a while before it starts producing things that don’t sound choppy and boring (or require more work editing than you would put into writing in the first place).
That said, AI can be a very powerful tool to complement your writing abilities. If you want a deep dive into exactly what it can do for you, check out this article by my pal, Robert.
When it comes to passive writing, you can use AI to:
- Identify it (Can you tell me which sentences in this paragraph are passive?)
- Correct it (Can you tell me how I can rewrite this passive sentence to make it active?)
- Strengthen it (Can you tell me some strong verbs or words to improve this sentence?)
You can also use AI-powered spelling, grammar, and style checkers to automatically spot passive writing as you go or while you’re revising.
ProWritingAid is one such tracker, and it’s excellent for noticing those pesky passive sentences. Lucky for you, it’s completely integrated into Dabble, so it’s easy to check your work when you’re ready.
Important note: Most AI and AI-driven checkers will still flag some non-passive writing as passive because of “to be.” Make sure you understand when this verb isn’t indicative of the passive voice so you know when to say no to the computer.
Passive Writing is Just One Element of Prose
You’ve made it all the way to the end of the article! There’s a lot of information you need to absorb to understand passive writing and when you should correct it.
Hopefully, you’ve managed to wrap your brain around all that, you’re ready to get writing!
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Above all else, happy writing!
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