Active vs passive voice in writing

IMG_1684

When writing fiction, creative non-fiction and even good non-fiction, writing in the active voice is usually best. Here’s a quick summary of why.

Active Voice

Using the active voice means the subject* of your sentence does the action. In other words it’s someone or something doing something rather than it being done to them. Active sentences are more alive because they’re more direct, succinct and closer. They draw you in.

[*The subject is the who/thing that’s doing something. It’s usually a noun like Jenny or The dog  or a noun phrase. It’s the beginning and main focus of the sentence. The object is the what is being done and follows the verb.]

Passive Voice

Using the passive voice means the subject receives the action. The subject is being acted upon by an outside force. Passive sentences use more words, can be vague and often lead to a tangle of prepositional phrases (which begin with at, in, about, from, with, by).

The passive voice is often used in bureaucratic or scientific writing to take the focus away from individual beliefs or responsibility and towards bureaucratic responsibility or research data. While there are times when the passive voice may be appropriate, by design it’s not engaging writing.

Examples:

  1. Jennygrabbed the knife, turned around and stabbed him. (Jenny is the subject or the thing doing the action. It’s the main focus of the sentence. The object is the knife.)
    The knife was grabbed by Jenny, who turned around and stabbed him.
    (Here, the knife becomes the main focus or subject as it receives the action. Jenny becomes the object as she’s being acted upon.)
  2. ICAN, an Australian-based anti-nuclear campaign, won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. (ICAN is the subject or main focus. ICAN won. ICAN was being acted upon.
    The 2017 Nobel Peace Prize was won by ICAN, an Australian based anti-nuclear campaign. (The Nobel Peace Prize is the main focus or subject. The prize was won. The prize was acted upon.)

Active or Passive Voice

In most writing, we prefer the active voice to be prominent. It’s more direct and promotes stronger verbs. Verbs and nouns bring sentences alive and give them power, which makes readers keep turning the page. Also, active writing is more concise, and concise writing is more vigorous.

Passive writing is remote, longer, sometimes ambiguous and readers can easily disengage.

That said, you might not want every sentence to be hard hitting. There’s a place for the passive voice. For example, in crime writing it can be very useful. Also, evasive characters might speak in the passive voice. But use it purposefully. Be aware of why you’re choosing the passive voice rather than accidentally falling into it.

When To Use the Passive Voice

  • To emphasise the action, not the actor e.g. Given how dark and cold the night was, a raging bonfire was lit by campers.
  • To maintain focus on the subject e.g. The weapon used was a long knife.
  • To be diplomatic and avoid naming the actor e.g. The numbers were unfortunately read incorrectly.
  • When you don’t know who did the action e.g. In this case, forensics are the key.
  • To create authority e.g. Dogs must be put on leads.

Converting sentences to active voice

Look for at the word by (e.g. The Nobel Peace Prize was won by…). Rewrite the sentence so that the clause after by is closer to the beginning of the sentence so it becomes the focus. If the subject of the sentence is fuzzy, use a general term.

Helpful reference ‘books’ for writing

IMG_1618.PNGGrammar is the rules or conventions that make the meaning of language and sentences clear.

Many people don’t care about grammar these days. But writing in a clear way by observing these conventions will help you to convey your message most effectively and optimally. The correct use of grammar will also that can help lift your writing into the professional realm, letting people know you’re a serious writer who works at their craft.

There will be times when you want to break the rules of grammar in the name of creativity. Go for it! But it helps to know them first before working out how best to manipulate them.

The five books I find most useful for grammar questions are as follows:

  1. A thesaurus – I use the online Dictionary.com almost every time I write to find synonyms for words I need to repeat. I like how you can click on a synonym in a list to find synonyms for that word until you’ve found the right one. I couldn’t write without a thesaurus.
  2. Fowler’s Modern English Usage – For me this is the bible on all sorts of questions you might have about specific words in both British and American, Australian, South African etc. English. For example, should I write roofs or rooves, is it ok to use ‘didn’t ought to’, what does ‘sic’ mean, what is the English versus American spelling of ‘program/me’, is the correct word ‘strategic’ or ‘strategical’? Make sure you get the latest edition.
  3. The Elements of Style – This book is great for writing rules such as when to place a comma before ‘and’ and ‘but’, slang, redundancy, using the active and not passive voice, verb tenses and mood, and is it which or that? The misused words and expressions section is fun reading, if you like that sort of thing. This book is priceless.
  4. A dictionary – I’m Australian and we generally speak British and to American English—although that’s eroding—so I use the Macquarie dictionary. It includes Australianisms  that other dictionaries don’t. Find the best dictionary for you in the version of  language  you want to write in—either online or physically. This is particularly important during the rewriting/editing/proofreading stages.
  5. Style Manual – This is an Australian Government book that I use for writing and editing advice. When I’m unsure about punctuation such as when do or don’t I include a comma in a string of adjectives, should I use a colon or a semi-colon, where do I place quotation marks, when do I use an en, em or 2-em dash, or hyphenation, then this is my go-to reference book. Very handy and easy to use with its detailed index.

To quote Winston S Churchill again, ‘This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.’