Active Voice: The Easiest Way to Improve Your Writing

Using “active voice” is one of the easiest ways to improve the quality of your writing.

Sentences written in active voice organize words so that the subject of the sentence is doing the action, not the object. For example, here’s a sentence written in active voice:

Kevin ate the bananas.

In this example, our protagonist Kevin (the sentence’s subject) is doing the action of eating (verb) some bananas (object).

While this approach to sentence construction appears simple and obvious, aspiring authors have a tendency to fall into the habit of using passive voice in their fiction writing.

Here is the same sentence as it would appear in many a manuscript:

The bananas (object) were eaten (verb) by Kevin (subject).

Note how switching the order of the subject and object weakens the sentence’s impact. Written in the passive voice, the sentence becomes about the bananas as opposed to being about our character, Kevin.

In this article on passive vs. active voice, English grammar expert Mignon Fogarty uses the excellent example of Marvin Gay song, “I heard it through the grapevine.”

Re-writing the song title into the passive voice, Fogarty transforms it into the inelegant and confusing, “It was heard by me through the grapevine,” deftly clarifying the problem with passive voice.

The passive version is unnecessarily complex, adds unnecessary words, and reduces comprehension and clarity.

The active version of a sentence almost always does a better job of quickly creating a visual image in the mind of the reader.

Breaking the Rules

Strunk and White warn against the use of passive voice in their seminal style guide, The Elements of Style.

Likewise, George Orwell, in his essay, Politics and the English Language, proposes the rule: “Never use the passive where you can use the active.”

That said, using passive voice isn’t always a mistake. There are situations where an author may consciously choose to write in passive voice.

You may want to use passive voice when the object of the sentence is more important than the subject:

James Bond (object) was shot (verb) by a random henchman (subject).

In this sentence, the object, Mr. Bond, is who the readers care about, not the random henchman, and the sentence is structured accordingly.

Passive voice is also helpful when you want to leave the subject of the sentence intentionally vague or unknown:

The innocent girl was murdered.

In this example, the sentence’s missing subject produces an intentional air of mystery.

The “To Be” Controversy

Now here’s where things can get a little controversial …

Some people mistakenly suggest all sentences using versions of the verb “to be” – including the past tense versions “I was” (singular) and “we were” (plural) – are in passive voice.

While this is not technically the case, I understand the confusion.

In fact, in my mind, I often drop the use of “was” sentences into the same mental bucket as other passive voice sentences.

I do so largely because these “was” sentences produce similar negative effects as their passive voice counterparts.

For example, the sentence, “Kevin was eating the bananas,” is already in the active voice. All the same, I recommend revising the sentence to read, “Kevin ate the bananas.”

Removing “was” and transforming the verb “eating” into “ate” strengthens the sentence, clarifies the meaning, and supports comprehension in the same way as transforming a sentence from passive to active voice.

When it comes to the use of active and passive voice there is, as usual, some flexibility regarding the rules.

With that in mind, I encourage you to hunt down the unintentional use of passive voice in your writing.

Redrafting those sentences into their active counterparts will almost certainly be one of the swiftest paths to improving the quality of your writing.

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