As an editor, I see the use of passive voice as a red flag in a manuscript. It strips out all the action and agency. Makes the text boring. Passive voice frequently appears in academic writing. The stuff no one wants to read. You can edit your own book manuscript for passive voice and hone your talents as a powerful writer with a few simple reminders.
So let me help you understand passive voice and then how you can get rid of it in your writing.
“The boy was hit by the bus.” PASSIVE SENTENCE. The boy is the subject of this sentence. He is the passive recipient of action. Note the use of the helping verb “was” flags the passive verb construction of “hit.” Passive voice masks the action and the agency. The responsible party for the vehicular accident ends up an object in the sentence instead of an actor.
“The bus hit the boy.” This is an ACTIVE sentence construction. Subject-verb-object. Who did what to whom? The subject is the bus. The bus commits the action upon the object, the boy. The readers’ sympathies still lie with the boy, often intended by the writer of a passively constructed sentence. The action and agency, however, are front and center. The reader can see the bus crash into a boy more easily with the active verb of “hit.” Responsibility for the action is clear.
Passive voice is all too common in everyday speech and finds its way into our writing. Passive voice is used by victims; objects acted upon rather than agents of their own free will. In most cases, it should be eliminated from your writing. It’s telling, not showing.
So how do you recognize it in your own writing when rewriting? Look for those helping verbs and conjugated endings with -ing forms. Sometimes, it’s more a matter of proper verb tense. Can you write it in simple past? “I was watching TV,” becomes “I watched TV.” This is not a passive construction to be changed. TV did not watch me.
Other times, it’s answering the question of “who did what to whom” to find the proper form for sentence construction. When in doubt, rely on the straightforward Subject-Verb-Object structure. “The resolution was voted into law by town council,” is a passive sentence. Voted is the active verb. Who voted what into law? The answer to the question organizes the sentence for the reader’s comprehension.
There are times when the rule of avoiding and eliminating passive voice from your manuscript should be broken: for effect. “The boy was taken to the Emergency Room by ambulance.” It is more important in this sentence to emphasize what happened to the boy.
Make your verbs active. Keep your sentence structure straightforward with the reader’s comprehension in mind. An active voice brings a good story to life.
Brian McDonald has accepted an offer of publication for his new memoir, THE LONG SURRENDER (Working Title), from Wisdom Editions, an imprint of Calumet Editions for April 15, 2022. After 30 years of preaching, Brian Rush McDonald walked away from the pulpit. He had become a Jesus freak during the tumult of high school desegregation in the 70s in Mobile, Alabama, and then immersed himself in the dogma of fundamentalism at Bob Jones University. Anxiety about unsaved souls facing eternal damnation, doubts about harsh doctrine, and guilt about his sexual longings as a young adult—he attributed it all to SatanicRead more…