Hey… did you hear the one about the bar that was walked into by a passive voice?
Probably not, because those stories have trouble keeping our attention. Successful writers know the difference between active and passive voice sentences, and how to choose the right one every time. Let’s break down what we mean by active and passive voice, what each one has to offer your story, and how to apply them to your own writing.
Active vs. passive voice: what’s the difference?
You’ll often hear writers talking about “active voice” and “passive voice”—and, most importantly, to avoid the passive voice at all costs. But is this always the case? Here’s a closer look at each one and what they look like in writing.
What is active voice?
Active voice is a simple sentence structure that involves the object of a sentence—usually a person—doing something. This type of writing is direct, straightforward, and convincing. It means someone is taking a direct action towards a goal.
Examples of active voice
Here are a few examples of sentences in active voice:
“She smiled at him.”
(In passive voice, this would be written as “He was smiled at by her.” We’ll look more at passive voice next.)
“He took off his hat.”
“They stepped into the street.”
“He wrote him a letter.”
And so forth. In each of these active voice examples, someone (that would be the object, in grammatical terms), takes an action (that would be your verb) towards something else—him, a hat, a street (this would be the grammatical subject of a sentence).
Not every sentence needs a subject. You could just say “She smiled,” or “They stepped outside,” and it would still be in the active voice.
What is passive voice?
Passive voice flips these sentences around so that instead of the object doing something, something is being done to them.
Often, this type of writing is discouraged because it tends to slow down a narrative. In story structure, writers are encouraged to have their characters taking action rather than having the action simply happen to them. Passive voice represents this on a smaller sentence-scale structure.
Examples of passive voice
If we turn the above sentences into passive voice examples, they look like this:
“He was smiled at by her.”
“His hat was taken off.”
“The street was stepped into by them.”
“A letter was written by him.”
A lot of the time, these don’t even look like real English. But sometimes passive sentence structures are used when one wants to deflect responsibility from the object, or particularly emphasize the subject of a sentence. For example:
“Every effort will be made” (by us) “to address your request in three business days.”
“We will make every effort to address your request.”
The first example is a passive voice sentence, and the second is an active voice sentence. The first is less direct and takes some of the responsibility off the speaker.
When should you use active voice in writing?
Most of the time, it’s good practice to default to using active voice sentences in your writing. Even if both present the same idea and are grammatically correct, sentences in active voice tend to make your writing flow more smoothly. In academic, political, or scientific writing, active sentences make your facts and arguments sound more convincing.
One of the biggest places where active voice is essential in fiction writing is during action sequences. If you’re writing a fight scene between two people, using the passive voice can give your writing a slow, dreamlike quality—not ideal for a scene where everything should be fast paced and vivid. For example:
“Suddenly, Cole was punched in the face by Jake. Cardboard boxes were toppled by his fall. Cole’s vision was blurred by bright patches.”
A bro’s getting beat on, and I’m yawning. Not good. Instead, try this:
“Suddenly, Jake punched Cole in the face. He stumbled against a wall of cardboard boxes. Bright patches blurred his vision.”
In general, try to write in the active voice wherever you can, unless you’ve examined the sentence in both active and passive voice and decided that the passive sentence is the better choice.
When should you use passive voice in writing?
Some writers argue that you should never use passive voice in writing. However, like all “rules” of art, it’s not quite so simple. Passive sentences can be effective if you want to place emphasis on the subject, rather than the object, or highlight the fact that an action is happening to someone.
Let’s look at a few more example sentences.
“He makes me so mad.”
This is a short, effective sentence in active voice. Even though it’s written in first person, “He” is the subject and “me” is the object; “He” is doing something to “me.”
Does it work in the passive voice?
“I am made so made by him.”
Not so much. This sentence reads as a bit gangly and awkward. Let’s try wording it another way:
“I am infuriated by him.”
This is better, but is it better than “He infuriates me”? Let’s try another verb:
“I am seduced by him.”
Hold on, hold on. This sentence is effective in the passive voice because it emphasizes the fact that something is happening to this person—an action beyond their control. In this case, the passivity works for the context of the sentence, rather than against it. To say, “He seduces me” in active voice would give the sentence a slightly different meaning. Both are correct; it’s up to you to decide which is right for the moment of your story.
Remember: active voice emphasizes the subject of the sentence, or the person doing the action. A passive voice sentence puts the attention on the object of the sentence.
If you catch yourself writing in the passive voice, try out the sentence in both ways. Don’t be afraid to keep the passive voice if, and only if, it communicates a deeper meaning about what’s happening in that moment.
How to rescue passive voice sentences
It’s easy to let passive voice seep into your writing without noticing. Even experienced writers often have to go back and adjust their passive voices during the editing process—so don’t feel alone! Fortunately, it’s easy to make a passive sentence active with a quick tweak.
To catch passive phrases in your writing, try reading it out loud and keep an ear out for sections that start to drag or feel monotonous. There’s a good chance this is happening because there’s too much passive voice being used. Watch out for a conjugated form of “to be”—is, was, will be—followed by a verb in the past tense: smiled, written, infuriated, and so forth.
An easy way to do this is use the find function on your word processor and search for the word “was.” If your story is written in past tense, this should catch most of your passive voice snags—for example, “He was punched.”
Then ask yourself: who’s actually doing this? In other words, which subject performs the action? See if you can flip it so that the sentence reads subject—verb—object instead of the other way around. By making these tiny adjustments, your writing will read much smoother and be more engaging for the reader.
But—don’t confuse passive voice and past continuous voice
Some new writers get so excited about obliterating all their sentences written in passive voice that they confuse sentences written in the past continuous voice. These can look a bit similar because they both use the verb “was,” but they serve a different function.
The passive continuous voice is used in past tense to describe an action that’s in progress. It looks something like this:
“He was smiling as she walked through the door.”
If you’re trying to change all your passive sentences to active ones, you might rewrite it like this:
“He smiled as she walked in the door.”
It’s almost exactly the same sentence, but that tiny adjustment actually changes its meaning. The first suggests the man was smiling at something else, and the woman walked in as he was doing it; the second suggests he smiled because she walked in the door. In the first, the action was already happening; in the second, the action began.
When you go through and edit, make sure you’re not accidentally changing the meanings behind your words.
Use the active voice to give your story strength
Passive and active voice both have their place in a story, but most of the time, the active voice sentence will make your work sound stronger and more confident. Keep these tips in mind next time you’re going over your work to elevate it that much more.