When I joined my writers’ group just over a year ago, one of the first things they constructively criticized me for was my use of the passive voice (versus active). The thing is, I had NO CLUE what the heck active or passive voice meant.
I believe in sharing what I’ve learned to help other people, so here’s my explanation of the difference between the two voices, and how to find and fix the problem.
Example sentence: I was hit by a ball.
Look at this poor guy. Something bad happened to him. Oh yeah, he was hit by a ball. But do you feel like an immediate part of the action? Can a subtle change in sentence structure give the action more impact?
Example sentence: A ball hit me.
Holy cow, a ball hit him! Now do you feel like part of the action? Sure, the photo helps, but the active voice can give your writing more punch. It’s shorter and clearer. There’s nothing wrong with using the passive voice, but generally speaking, the active voice is better.
How to find passive sentences in your writing
- Use your word-processor’s grammar checker. I’m using Microsoft Word, and there are a ton of things you can choose to include in its grammar check. It will suggest fixing sentences that might be passive.
- Search for various forms of the verb “to be.” For example, being, was, and were. When those words precede another verb in past tense (past participle) like hit or walked, there’s your passive sentence. He was hit by a ball.
How to fix passive sentences
Once you find a passive sentence, all you have to do is reword it to get rid of the “to be” verb.
Passive: We were given an invitation by Sam.
Active: Sam gave us an invitation.
Passive: Her car was sold.
Active: She sold her car.
You’ll probably get used to writing in the active voice, hopefully to the point where you don’t have to search for it any more. I know I still use the passive voice in my writing sometimes, but I also know my writing is a lot cleaner than it used to be. There’s always room for improvement; all we can do is try our best!