Active vs passive voice in writing
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.
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.]
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.
- 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.)
- 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.
Nouns & verbs, action & substance
Adjectives, adverbs and all other sentence elements are secondary.