Writing Tip #76

Not every sentence you write has to be in active voice. Writers have been told time and time again that using active voice is vital to writing. And it is. A sentence with an “active voice” is basically a sentence in which the subject performs the action. Conversely, in sentences with passive voice, the subject is passive, or acted upon. For example:

Active voice: Jack threw the ball.

Passive voice: The ball was thrown by Jack.

Both sentences mean the same thing, but sentences with active voice are vivid and have energy, directness; they are less wordy and get their point across in a nice, tidy wallop.

However, that is not to say that every sentence of your novel has to be in active voice. I’m a believer that passive voice has a useful and necessary place. When I spot a sentence written in passive voice in my writing (or others’, if I’m editing), most of the time my tendency is to change it to active voice. But sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I like the way it sounds and think it works for what’s trying to be said. Sometimes I want to de-emphasize, or avoid completely, the agent performing the action.

Just like the first unbolded sentence of this blog post.

But you’ll find that too many of these sentences makes for dull, lifeless narratives, so be aware of how frequently you use passive voice. But do use it from time to time. Trust me, it’s okay.

What do you think? Do you check your writing for sentences written in active and passive voice?


4 thoughts on “Writing Tip #76

  1. My grammar checker goes nuts every time I write a passive sentence and I like my finished documents to be as free from colorful wavy lines as much as possible. So I usually rip apart any passive voice statements I’ve written and do it over again in active voice. And nine times out of ten the computer is right and my writing is the better for the change. But there is that nagging 10% that gets me. There are just times when passive voice is the one that reads and sounds correct and it is those times I leave it in and let my grammar checker frown at me.

  2. I can see it being used as a literary technique – but sparingly, of course. That’s the trick with these things, and I guess (if you remember) it’s a good idea to say to your editor: I meant to do that here…


  3. The number one item on my revision checklist is look at every passive sentence and decide if it should stay. Most of the time I rewrite it. If my grammer checker shows more than 5% passive, I go back and review everyone again. If it sounds good when I read it out loud and the effect is what I’m looking for, I will leave it in.

  4. It’s all a balancing act for me, I use passive sentences, to break up active repetition sometimes but where I do try to avoid them is when the tension is high. It’s critical in these scenes to have an active voice and maintain excitement and suspense. As Dennis says, the key for me is the impact when I read it out loud. I tend to go with my gut at this stage. Another great post, Dina – what a cool blog this is :)

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