I thought it might be interesting to write a little series of posts exploring some pieces of common writing advice that are often offered, and just as often misunderstood.
Let’s start with passive vs. active voice.
The advice is: Avoid the passive voice in your writing. Write with an active voice.
You know that already. It’s great advice that you’ve heard since high school. But do you really know what it means?
I’m going to be very honest and tell you that I didn’t fully understand what “write with an active voice” really meant until a professor explained it during a writer’s workshop when I was in my 40s.
She explained it to me like I was a slow kindergartner, in detail and in front of the whole class, after I got on my high horse about active voice in my critique of another writer’s work. Work that was not passive.
(For the record, I wasn’t wrong about the writing being problematic. I was wrong about why the writing was problematic. More on that in a minute.)
Let’s start where that professor started when she schooled me. With what, exactly, passive and active voice mean. Because they’re actual real things with definitions.
A sentence has, at least, a subject and a verb and can be as short as two words.
Mary sat. John ran.
Mary and John are subjects; sat and ran are verbs.
A sentence also has an object — even if it’s implied. If the object isn’t present in the sentence, then it’s left up to the reader’s imagination.
Mary sat in a chair. John ran on the trail.
Chair and trail are objects — whether or not you write them in the sentence.
You probably learned all that in the third grade.
Active Voice = Subject. Verb. Object.
When you write with an active voice, the subject actively does something to the object.
Mary sits in the chair. John runs on the trail.
As long as your sentence construction meets this criteria, no matter how weak it is, it’s at least active. The subject is actively doing something.
Passive Voice = Object. Verb. Subject.
When you write in a passive voice, the object has something done to it by the subject.
The chair is sat on by Mary. The trail is run on by John.
Object. Verb. Subject.
The object becomes the subject that passively has something done to it by the new object, with a to be verb added in.
You can tell a passive sentence because it has a to be verb (is, was, had been) and the word ‘by.’
Just like the object can sometimes be implied in a sentence that’s written in the active voice, it can be implied in a passive sentence.
The chair is sat upon. The trail is run.
The sentence is complete, even if you leave off the word ‘by’ and everything after it.
The classic high-school English teacher trick is that if you can add ‘by zombies’ to the end of a sentence and it makes sense without changing the intent of the sentence, it’s passive.
The chair is sat upon by zombies. Passive.
Mary sat on the chair by zombies. Active.
Got all that? Good. Let’s go a little deeper.
The mistake I made in that workshop was that I called weak writing passive.
Mary was sitting in the chair. John was running the trail.
Those are active sentences, (remember: subject, verb, object) but they aren’t very good. They aren’t strong. They feel passive, because Mary and John are so far removed from the action they’re taking. And a whole piece written that way comes across as very passive — even though it’s not, technically.
Weak active voice: Mary was sitting in the chair.
Stronger active voice: Mary sat in the chair.
Pro Tip: When you’ve finished your manuscript, do a search for “-ing.” Look for sentences where you’ve combined a ‘to be’ verb (was or is or had been, depending on the tense you’re using. Or, you know. The tense you used. Ha.) Change all, or most, of them to stronger verb constructions. This one exercise will take your writing to the next level.
Once you have a basic sentence using the active voice, you can expand it if you want to make it even stronger or just add more detail.
Active: Mary sat ramrod straight on the edge of the chair.
Active, but weaker: Mary was sitting ramrod straight on the edge of the chair.
Passive: The edge of the chair was sat upon by Mary, who was ramrod straight.
Active: John ran the trail like a hot knife through butter.
Active, but weaker: John was running the trail like a hot knife through butter.
Passive: The trail was run by John, like he was a hot knife through butter.
We don’t know if Mary is anxious or angry or bursting with joy here, but it’s clear there’s some emotion just under the surface. And adding the metaphor to John’s sentence let’s the reader know that John is zooming down that trail — whether it’s because he’s a good runner or because those zombies are chasing him is left up to context.
The good news is that true passive voice is often awkward for native English speakers. You probably will never write “The edge of the chair was sat upon by Mary, who was ramrod straight.” It kind of hurts the brain.
It’s far more likely that your writing will fall victim to active, but weak sentence structure. But, because active, but weak almost always uses a to be verb followed by an -ing verb, it’s an easy (if sometimes grueling) fix.
Trust me, fix it 512 times in one story, and you’ll learn to avoid it in the next one.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.