Pass(ive)ing the Buck

la_passive_active_voiceThis weekend, I had the chance to speak with a good writer friend of mine. While discussing our writing, the issue of passive voice surfaced (again). I know I’ve spoken about this before, but it’s been a while, and I thought it might be nice to touch on it again.

If you’re unfamiliar with the passive voice, here’s a quick run-down. It’s a type of sentence construction that uses the object of the verb as the subject of the sentence. I like to use this example to show the difference:

(Active voice) The car hit the boy.

(Passive voice) The boy was hit by the car.

Notice the shift in the tone of the sentence? The passive voice softens the verb. Here, we should be horrified by the situation. A car ruthlessly ran over a boy. Instead, with the passive voice, the thing doing the hitting (the car) follows the verb, which softens the action.

This can be problematic for several reasons. The first of which is this: too many words. If you’ve done much writing, you know that a large portion of editing and revising has to do with cutting words out. The passive voice inherently adds words (specifically was or were and by). The second problem is this: our characters need to be active. Even in verb tense. To demonstrate, I’ll show you a paragraph, one almost exclusively in passive voice, the other in active. You tell me which is stronger.

  • (Passive) Her cheek was wet with the rain slipping from the sky. The horse was guided by her feet toward the cliff. She was scared, but she didn’t want to say anything. She wanted to go home, where she was loved.
  • (Active) Rain slipped from the sky and wet her cheek. Her feet dug into the sides of the horse, pinching them, guiding the animal toward the cliff. She swallowed the fear rising up her esophagus, refused to allow it a voice. Love waited for her at home, and her heart longed to return.

Notice how many times I used the word was in the first paragraph? Four, or those of you keeping score at home. Compared to how many times I used it in the second? Zero.

Of course, the second sounds stronger. Admittedly, I had more difficulty coming up with the second, but that’s okay. It’s a little like exercise for the writer. It stretches our brains, forces us to come up with stronger ways of relaying information. An additional bonus, it’s easier for the reader to get through. Instinctively, we like the active voice. We like active characters.

On your revisions, make sure you take a pass at your manuscript with an eye for the passive voice. Search your document for every instance of was and were. While some are necessary, I think you’ll find most can be replaced after a careful revision of the sentence.

15 thoughts on “Pass(ive)ing the Buck”

  • Very interesting. I didn’t know about passive and active writing until reading this. Definitely going to have to do some practice trying these out.

  • I like using active because you can read the detail of what the writer is showing you and how the situation plays out like a event. Also passive sometimes shows detail but it doesn’t show the emotion of the writer towards the characters.

  • Active writing is much stronger than passive writing, but if your goal is to sound distant, wistful, or illusive, it might enhance your writing to use a passive voice.

  • The key to fiction is hiding the emotion of the writer. The reader doesn’t want to constantly remember that he or she is reading a product of some random person’s imagination–that’s tacky. As a writer, be cold and heartless.
    Now, I’m not telling you to rip your characters’ organs out (unless you’re a horror writer). But don’t let your emotions toward your characters influence your writing style too much.
    Okay. Done with that little tangent. I am personally quite guilty of falling back on the passive voice. It’s a hard habit to break, but a worthwhile one. It brings the reader that much closer to the good stuff–meaning they’ll be that much more likely to cheer at your protagonist’s triumphs and boo at his or her defeats. That, my friends, is what you want.
    Write well, write often.

  • If you are trying to build suspence passive voicing of the words is not the way to go. I often use the active voice in my writing because it gets the reader more inoled and makes you feel more connected to the charector that is being described.

  • I didn’t realize how much was was repeated. Practicing not to fall back on passive writing will make me a better writer.

  • i was thinking the same thing for my character in my comic book even though he is the main character i was thinking of killing him after a 100 issues or so and leaving it up to the supporting characters to now tell the story

  • Well after reading this and went through the majority of my short stories and found that I use passive writing more than active writing when it should be the other way around to fit the context. So I’ve done alot of revising. This post will really help improve my writing.

  • After reading this i went through the story i have been currently been working on. I realized that i use alot of passive writing. After going through and fixing all of my writing mistakes, i realized how much better everything sounded. This post really helped. Thank you!<3

  • Hmmm. I definitely use the word “was” too often. I will keep this in mind when writing. Passive and active voices are something I’ve heard of but never quite understood. Thank you.

  • It’s crazy how small words like “was” can completely change something from active to passive. If I want to make my writing active I should really stop using it. hahaha

  • I use the active point of view, I just wasn’t familiar with the terms. Now I know, and I will continue doing things right.

  • hmmmmm.. ill have to start using this more often now in your class. i knew not to use “was” to often but now it just seems like it’ll dull what ever story im writing if its overused

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