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EDIT TIP: Passive Voice Versus Active Voice

Updated: Aug 7, 2023


Lately, I’ve worked with a few author clients who struggle with the same issue in their writing: passive voice. What is that? Passive voice often creates muddy and wordy sentences, affecting the object and subject. (There are instances when passive voice can be used and should be used. For now, let’s work on how to improve copy without it.)


Self-editing tip: To change a sentence from passive to active voice, determine who is performing the action and change that person to the subject of the sentence.


Examples:

Passive voice: The ball was given by the Darcys.

Active voice: The Darcys hosted the ball.


Passive voice: Once a week the messages would be delivered by a footman.

Active voice: A footman would deliver the messages once a week.


Passive voice: My first date was remembered by me as how my love with him was begun.

Active voice: My love for him began on our first date.


Formula for active voice:

[subject]+[verb (performed by the subject)]+[optional object]


In passive voice, sentences seem more convoluted. In active voice, your prose takes on emotion and immediacy, and your reader is more likely to become invested in your story because your writing emphasizes the “actor” rather than the “action.”


The more you are aware of passive vs. active voice, the more concise, the better your content. Keep working on writing in an active voice. Practice really does make perfect. Then when you have mastered the active voice, you can include passive voice when appropriate—and know how to use it like a pro.


8 Comments


great reminder--thank you!

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Christina Boyd
Christina Boyd
Feb 26, 2023
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You're very welcome! Hope you are making time to write.

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Guest
Feb 23, 2023

I haven't edited fiction in a long time, but I am editing my son's first novel right now as he writes his second, and this is a great reminder that I should consciously look for and encourage strong verbs and active voice. - TC

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Christina Boyd
Christina Boyd
Feb 24, 2023
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How lucky your son as in-house editing! Good luck.

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Anji Dee
Anji Dee
Feb 23, 2023

This is so true and probably something I'm guilty of all the time! I can also relate to this in my professional life as a pharmacist. Years ago, we used to label medicines as “x amount to be taken y times a day”. Nowadays, the preferred form is “Take x amount y times a day”, even though doctors often go the “old fashioned“ route in their prescribing. Indeed, the more senior generation still use Latin abbreviations even though their prescriptions are computer generated and mostly transmitted electronically to the patient's choice of pharmacy.

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Christina Boyd
Christina Boyd
Feb 23, 2023
Replying to

Fascinating! I think passive voice can lend itself to style and help with world building in historical fiction, but it’s tricky business… Too often the sentences are wordy, making the intent unclear. And we never want the writing to be a struggle for the reader. After a while, they’ll start to skim or give up altogether.

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Thanks, Christina. Excellent examples. As my son says, "True!....Double True!"

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Christina Boyd
Christina Boyd
Feb 21, 2023
Replying to

Hope some of my self-editing tips help. Double thanks!

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