As an editor, I see nearly everyone using passive voice in their writing. While passive voice isn’t always wrong, it’s wordy and ineffective. It’s weak and doesn’t show any conviction or strength in your language. Quite frankly, it’s annoying – I don’t like trying to figure out the actor in a sentence and as an editor, I just want writers to be clear! Don’t hide your subjects and objects and make everything a mess!
Passive voice is the second most common mistake I fix on a daily basis; punctuation is first on that list. If it’s such a pervasive mistake, how do you fix your writing to be clear, easy to understand, and engaging? The key is to switch passive sentences to active sentences. What’s the difference between an active and passive sentence? I’ve outlined the basics below.
What is active voice? What is passive voice?
In active voice, the subject is doing the action. Subjects are highlighted in red, actions (aka verbs) are highlighted in blue, and objects are in green.
- The cat chased the toy.
- She ate the cookie.
- He closed the door.
In passive voice, the subject is acted upon. It makes the object look like the subject/actor, but that’s not *really* the case. Subjects are highlighted in red, actions are highlighted in blue, and objects are in green.
- The toy was chased by the cat.
- The cookie was eaten by her.
- The door was closed by him.
If you compare the examples, you can see that active voice is concise and easy to read, and the subject and action are always close together. There are no extra words or phrases in active voice. Writing in active voice keeps your writing clear.
Identifying Passive Voice
If you can identify the subject and the object in a sentence, you can easily identify passive voice. If you can’t identify the subject and the object in a sentence, you should probably ask your grade school teacher. Or, if you’re using Microsoft Word, follow these quick steps:
- Go to File > Options > Proofing
- Under “When correcting spelling and grammar in word,” go to “writing style” and select “grammar & style.” Next, hit the settings button.
- Scroll down to “style” and select “passive voice.” Hit “ok” on this dialogue box and then click “ok” again.
Now, all passive sentences and phrases will be identified by a blue squiggly line. Now that you’ve identified sentences with passive voice, you can make changes as necessary.
How do you change from passive to active voice?
Changing from passive to active voice is easier said than done. Make the subject do the action. Shift the focus from the direct/indirect object back to the actor.
Instead of this: The monument was visited by Hannah.
Try this: Hannah visited the monument.
Notice in all of the examples that in changing a sentence from passive to active voice, we got rid of variations of “is/was/were.” This is an easy way to identify passive voice. If you have a past
participle in front of your verb, chances are that you’re writing in passive voice.
When can you use passive voice?
Sometimes, passive voice is necessary or just makes more sense. The general rule is that when the person/object being acted upon is more important than the doer, use passive voice.
Example: President Lincoln was assassinated.
In this example, we don’t really care who assassinated Lincoln. I mean, technically we do, but Lincoln is way more important than John Wilkes Booth. Here, the object, President Lincoln, is more important than the subject/actor, and you can express that with the passive voice. [Ok, maybe this isn’t the best topic for an example, but like I said – you almost never use passive voice!]
Changing sentences–or paragraphs–from passive to active voice doesn’t have to be hard. Once you’re able to identify the basic parts of the sentence that contribute to passive voice, switching things up becomes a lot easier! By simply moving parts of your sentence around, your writing can take on a whole new life and attract more readers.
Whether you’re writing a novel, self-publishing an e-book, or just want to make sure your college paper shines, eliminating passive voice is the easiest trick to take your writing to the next level.
And, if you’re still feeling overwhelmed or just want a second set of eyes, pop on over to my contact page or the Between the Lines Facebook group for assistance!
Thanks for these tips! Passive voice is a bad habit I’ve fallen into, and need to break out of. I appreciate the MS Word tip. I didn’t know you can check for passive voice in there.
I’m so glad you found it helpful, Ruth! Please let me know if you have any questions. 🙂
Very nice guide, Hannah! Avoiding passive voice is so essential to being able to write more concisely.
Thanks, Nicole! I rework passive voice so much on each project, it’s crazy!
Thank you so much for the tip in Microsoft Word! I changed my word settings and now my story is filled with tons of squiggles! I have a lot of fixing to do, but it makes me happy to know that there are more corrections I can catch before sending off to editor! Thank you, you are awesome!
Hi Tana–I’m so glad you found it helpful! Good luck and have fun with your revisions!
I picked up Spanish as a second language way too early. The passive voice haunts my writing and speaking. Thanks for this.
Thank you for this helpful article and the tip in Microsoft Word.
Hi Lora, I’m so glad you found this helpful! Happy writing. 🙂
I just use the Hemingway App. Passive voice appears a different colour text, so I can quickly change the sentence up to fix it.
I’ve never used the Hemingway App, but I know many authors like it! That’s great that it highlights passive voice for you! Very helpful 🙂
Thank you so much this has has been helpful.
any tips on how to turn passive voice into active voice?
Hi Sau! Yes. The ‘How do you change from passive to active voice?’ section of the blog post offers an example, but you want to rewrite the sentence to have the subject performing the action.
Passive voice: The coffee was poured by Hannah.
In that passive sentence, Hannah is the true subject of this sentence, but it looks like ‘coffee’ is. We can flip the sentence to make Hannah perform the action.
Active voice rewrite: Hannah poured the coffee.
Even in longer and more complex sentences, the key to getting back to active voice is having the true subject perform the action. Hope that helps!
I find it hard to avoid passive voice when doing meeting minutes. Am I the only one?