Ah… passive voice. Just hearing that term conjures images of ninth-grade English class with all its confusing grammar rules!
Passive voice is something that’s often talked about with disdain by editors and writing coaches – but many writers find it hard to recognise when they’re using it.
That muscle can be a difficult one to flex – but never fear, AutoCrit is here to help you figure out what passive voice really means, why it’s (usually) bad, and how you can easily avoid it in your manuscript.
Active & Passive Voice: What’s the Difference?
In the English language, there are two ways to construct a sentence: active and passive.
In active voice, the subject of the sentence does the action. For example:
John stole the priceless vase.
John is the subject, and it’s clear he’s the one stealing the vase.
Here’s another example:
The cat sat on the mat.
It’s clear who is doing the action (the cat). He is actively sitting on the mat.
In the passive voice, the object of the action is made into the subject of the sentence, so it can become confusing as to who’s actually taking the action.
The priceless vase was stolen by John.
The mat was sat on by the cat.
Think of that little ditty from the 60s:
“I heard it through the grapevine.”
If it were passive, it would be:
“It was heard through the grapevine.”
Ack! Nobody can dance to that! There’s no energy. It isn’t active. See how that works?
Why Passivity is Bad for Your Story
Passive voice is a clunky structure by nature — especially since the part about who or what is doing the action often gets dropped entirely by this form. For example:
The priceless vase was stolen.
The mat was sat on.
See how it can get confusing for the reader? It isn’t direct, and you want to be as direct and clear as possible so your writing is easily understood.
The other negative point is in the name: it’s passive. You want your readers to be absorbed by your work – to feel participatory, witness to dynamic, unfolding events. To make that happen, you need to be using the active voice.
Passivity often creeps in when we’re being lazy about who or what is taking action – and readers know it’s lazy, as do publishers and agents.
The Easy Way to Turn Passive into Active
It pays to take the time to turn your passive sentences into active ones – but how do you do that?
Simple: just ask yourself who’s doing the action, and make sure that’s clear in the sentence.
Now, this isn’t to say that identifying passive writing can’t be tricky at times. It most certainly can (hence it being one of the greatest banes of nearly every first draft, ever).
Technically, passive voice is not grammatically incorrect, so your typical word-processing software won’t always flag it – and if it does, it’s likely to be only sporadically.
So try this when scanning through your first draft:
Look for some of the classic indicators, such as forms of the verb to be – like had/has and was/were.
The vase was stolen.
The mat was sat on.
Not every use of the verb to be automatically means you’re being passive – but if you prime yourself to look out for it, you can quickly pass over your manuscript and stop at each sentence containing a variant and decide whether it should be changed.
When Passive is Preferable
Passive voice (rightly) gets a bad rap, but it can occasionally work in fiction — if you do it right.
Say, for instance, you want to emphasize the object of the sentence instead of the subject. Passive voice is the answer!
Let’s go back to the priceless vase we’ve been mentioning, and make the reader curious about who stole it. A passive form is perfect for this:
The priceless vase was stolen.
Ooooh! By whom?
Another passive voice example that works nicely:
Fifty signatures were needed to get the stop sign installed.
This puts the focus where it belongs – on the signatures rather than on the stop sign, which is less important in this case.
Another way to use passive voice is to show when someone is trying to dodge responsibility:
“Mistakes were made,” Senator Collins said in his speech to the angry voters.
Clearly, this guy is trying to dodge the blame – a move perfectly underscored through the use of passive voice.
The Even Easier Way to Stay Active
Passive voice indicates a lack of specificity and clarity, which also occurs when writers show instead of tell and use generic descriptions – all things that AutoCrit has the built-in ability to flag.
Generic descriptions are fuzzy, ambiguous words – words like nice, good, uncomfortable, or pretty.
Sometimes known as abstract words, such descriptions make it difficult for the reader to truly “see” the scene. Abstract words tell… when every writer knows the goal is to show.
For a simple solution to all of this, first run AutoCrit’s Passive Voice analysis. This will indicate – with highlights – words in your manuscript that can and often do indicate passive voice, saving you the effort of running through the entire thing yourself.
Note that the words AutoCrit highlights here can also merely indicate a passive (weak) verb – the decision of whether to change what’s there remains in your hands. This is your book, after all.
Next, check out the Generic Descriptions and Showing Versus Telling analyses. Doing this will help you easily spot and improve those lazy words and descriptions in no time at all.
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What are your thoughts on active/passive voice? Have you managed to keep your passivity under control? Chat all about it in the comments below!