Thursday, April 12, 2012

Active and Passive Writing

by Stephanie Morrill

Let's establish straight away that I'm no expert on active or passive writing. Or anything grammar related, really.

But once upon a time, I wrote with a lot of passive sentences until a literary agent told me she liked my story, but that my sentence structure was way too passive. "If you can fix that, I'll take another look," she said.

"Sure!" I told her. "I'll revise and get it right back to you!"

And then I set about trying to figure out what in the heck she was talking about. Passive writing?!?!

I sat at my desk with Garner's Modern American Usage, The Elements of Style, and The Chicago Manual of Style. I read about using an "active voice." And I reread. And then I reread again. Then I studied my manuscript. Then I turned to the books again and tried reading the material out loud.

After awhile, I thought I maybe-kinda-sorta knew what the style guides were talking about and I could possibly fix it.

I can't explain why writers seem to have a natural leaning toward the passive voice, but I find it to be a common problem among new writers, and I often see it in my early manuscripts.

First, what do I mean by all this active and passive jibberish? The word "was" is a good clue that you're speaking in a passive voice, or "is" if you're writing is present tense. Like in these examples ripped straight out of an old manuscript of mine:

Paige was scanning the room for him.

Carter was there before she could do or say anything.

It was Carter's best friend Matt who asked the question.

In an active voice those would read:

Paige scanned the room for him.

Carter arrived before she could do or say anything.

Matt, Carter's best friend, asked the question.

This is the version I have. It was a Christmas gift
my junior year of high school from my friend Eliese.
She called it, "The Writer's Bible" and said
"remember me when you're famous!"

Eliese, this is likely the closest I'll get. And
thanks for providing me with a tool that helped me
get published!

To quote the wisdom of William Strunk Jr., author of The Elements of Style, "The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive." Which I think is displayed well in the sentences above. The ones written in an active voice are just better sentences.

But was (or "is") is not an evil word. It can also be used to describe something ongoing. Like:

When I entered, Jane was stirring the soup.

James was a handsome boy.

The room was decorated in mauve and blue.

I was scrubbing the floors when Lara walked in.

All fine uses. Because if you changed one to something like, "When I entered, Jane stirred the soup," it would take on a different meaning. It would sound like Jane saw you enter, and then she stirred the soup. Instead the author means that is the ongoing action.

So don't cut every was from your story, but do examine them.

I hope this is somewhat helpful to those of you who might be trying to fix passive sentences. Or for those who maybe didn't even know they existed until they saw this post that they should be fixed.

Learning to write in an active voice was a hard challenge to overcome, but teaching myself how to do it is literally what got me my first agent. If you have questions about specific sentences, leave them in the comments below, and I'll offer my thoughts. Again, I'm no expert, but I'll share what I know!

Don't forget, a new writing contest opened on Monday, so make sure you check that out. And Cara Putman (spelled it right again - score!) was here yesterday sharing advice on picking careers for your characters. She's also giving away a copy of her latest release, so get thyself entered.

The ΓΌberwise Jill Williamson will be here tomorrow talking about the challenges of writing a full-scale war scene. Have a great Thursday everyone!


  1. Thank Stephanie! That was an excellent point, noi I have to go check my writting. I read elements of style for school last semester but I need to retread it. Its a hard book to read and get. Your post was motivating that I might actually learn from reading it!

    1. I find myself doing a lot of re-reading anytime I'm trying to grasp a grammar concept!

  2. Thank you so much for posting on this topic! I actually just read through my WIP and found many passive sentences. Using active sentences makes the writing clearer and much more direct. I will watch for passive sentences in my future writing.

    By the way, I just discovered your blog a few days ago and I really think it will be a big help with my writing. Thanks so much! :)

    1. Welcome, Jill! So glad you found us! Glad the post was helpful.

  3. Thanks so much Stephanie! Passive voice is something I struggle with (and also something that I hate fixing, sadly!)
    I didn't know that there were acceptable uses for "was" and "is," though...that eliminates a lot of my edits, thank goodness!

    Thanks again for the wonderful post. :)

    1. The good news is that once you get in the habit of spotting it, it gets easier to avoid writing that way and to correct instances where you lapse into the passive voice. (I love your name by the way. If we have another girl, I'm totally fighting for Olivia.)

  4. Wow, this is actually something that I don't do! FInally! I'm not a failure!

    Haha, I used to write passively a lot, I noticed. I don't know what made me stop, but I haven't been doing it nearly as much lately.

    Thanks for the great post!

    1. Lol, Madison. Glad I was able to point out something you're already doing well :)

  5. Thank you so much for writing this! I actually plan to go through my WIP, when it's finished, with my sister and line edit it. I will add "active/passive voice" to my list. ^_^

  6. You have no idea how much I needed this article. I absolutely hate remembering active/passive because I get so confused! This seemed to clear it up a lot. I can't wait to use it! Maybe I'll go buy that book...

  7. Ohh yes! Passive and active sentences… That is one place where I’m confused quite often. Sort of like I used to get confused about where to use ‘than’ and ‘then’ now it just makes sense. I think the passive/active sentences will come around for me too. Thanks for the help!

  8. I used to use passive voice a lot, until I read about it in a writing book. Now I make every effort to avoid passive writing. I think it gets easier with practice.

  9. Looks like you explained it well enough for me to understand haha. :) I totally got it! And it helped a whole lot! Thank you Stephanie!

  10. Fortunately I don't do that! But I know to look out for it now, just to be safe:) Thanks you Miss Stephanie, I Believe that was helpful:)

  11. I've heard of passive and active writing before, but didn't really know much about it until this post. I think I tend to lean towards a more active style - maybe the years of being a bookworm got it into my head early! - but I'll definitely keep this in mind to make sure I don't slip into a passive voice. :) Thanks so much for the advice, Stephanie!