Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Passive Vs. Active Voice - A Little Grammar For Tuesday

I wanted to spend some time this week to look at some specific issues when it comes to spicing up your writing. No, this is not about putting those hot scenes in between your hero and heroine; these are issues dealing with some specific writing strategies. I do have to stress, however, that just using these techniques will not make your story 100% ready for press. In other words, just using techniques properly does not replace quality writing, story development, character development and so forth.

So let’s start with the issue of passive vs. active voice.

I have heard a lot of writers complain about getting nailed in contests for writing in passive voice. For some reason, it has been drilled into our heads that passive writing is wrong (not simple weak) and active writing is the only way to go. This is far from the case.

Daily, we use passive voice all of the time. We speak in passive voice. We write in passive voice. Sometimes there is simply no other way to write it other than in passive voice. Still, understanding the differences and determining how we can make shifts in our voice to strengthen our writing is always important.

 Let’s start first with some definitions. I am going to go to my favorite grammar resource, A WRITER’S REFERENCE by Diana Hacker. Honestly, if you want the ultimate guide to everything grammar, this is the place to go to. Although the material deals heavily with an academic writing style, the strategies are still the same. By the way, I am using the 6th edition today simply because my current 7th edition copy is not with me.

 According to Hacker, “In the active voice, the subject of the sentence does the action; in passive voice, the subject receives the action” (151). So what does this really mean?

 In simple terms active and passive voice comes down to the structure of the sentence. For example, we can talk about Nora Roberts and her writing. In active voice, the sentence would look something like this:

            Nora Roberts wrote a novel.

If we shift the same idea to passive voice, the sentence now looks like this:

            The novel was written by Nora Roberts.

Now, I do have to stress that when we talk about “the subject” of the sentence, we are focusing more on the idea of who or what the sentence is about instead of the actual grammatical subject. In the case of the first example, Nora Roberts is both the grammatical subject that the main ideas/subject of the sentence. In the case of the second sentence, the grammatical subject is the novel and yet the main idea/subject of the sentence is Nora Roberts.

That’s the idea in a nutshell.

 But why do we tend to focus more on using active voice instead of passive voice? The idea stems from the intensity of the idea. With active voice, the idea is expressed more energetically than in passive voice simply because using the helping verbs (often the form of be) tends to weaken the point. Along the same lines, by moving the main idea further back into the sentence, it becomes an idea that, grammatically, could be eliminated from the sentence and it still will make sense.

The other reason we will want to look to using more of an active voice simply revolves around the idea of word choice. This is your chance, as a writer, to find those “killer” verbs that have a stronger connotation that the simple verbs you would have used with the helping verbs and likely a stack of adverbs. For example.

The tree outside Adrian’s room was viciously struck down by the bolt of the vampire’s spell.

Not bad. We get the idea of what is going on here, but if we bring this to a more active tone, and move the vampire to the forefront, we are forced to think of verbs that really say what we want.

The vampire’s spell shredded the tree outside Adrian’s room.

The idea is simple. Replace those verbs that require helping verbs with something a bit more impactful and meaningful for your writer.

Do you have to do this for every sentence? Absolutely not! As I said in the beginning, active or passive writing is not something that will make or break your writing. But, if you find passages that seem to sit there like milk toast, you might want to consider making some grammatical changes. If you tend to get responses from editors, agents and contests that your writing is a bit flat, you might want to explore your verb use.



  1. Yes! I see a lot of confusion in writers forums regarding this very thing. Thank you for putting it in such straight-forward terms.

  2. I have struggled with this concept for a long time and reading some of the "lessons" online were just confusing me more. Thank you for writing a concise and understandable description that actually makes sense!!