Oh passive voice, the bane of my writing existence, along with idiompassive-voices and the use of semicolons. (I despise semicolons. Just start a new sentence!) But that is a rant for another time. As a newly published author (The Travelers), I probably struggled with passive voice the most. And through those struggles, along with the help of some very seasoned book editors, I think I’ve learned enough about the topic to provide some helpful (and abbreviated, for those of you with busy schedules) advice.

Understanding Passive Voice

I don’t think I really understood passive voice until about two years ago. Ironic, I know, since I am an editor by trade. However, I don’t edit materials where passive voice is much of a concern. Medical materials are different from novel writing. For a novel, a writer must be aware of passive voice and how to correct it. passive-voice-by-zombies

If you fall into the category of not understanding passive voice, don’t be ashamed. Lucky for you, the internet contains a wealth of information. If, like me, you want practical explanations, not a 10th grade English lesson, you might find the sites below helpful. One of them includes zombies. You’re welcome. (It always comes back to zombies for me, doesn’t it?)

  1. Pennington Publishing blog on how to eliminate to be verbs 
  2. Grammarly Blog on easy way to help find passive voice active-voice-overview
  3. Purdue OWL active and passive voice description

Quick Examples

If you don’t have time to read through sites, here are some Quick Tips and Examples to help identify passive voice. Remember, these tips are for guidance. They are not hard and fast rules.

  • If a sentence contains a “to be” verb (eg, is, are, was, were), you’re at risk of passive voice. (It’s not always passive voice. But, when editing or writing you can often start with these sentences  to help identify passive voice.)
  • If the sentence has a to be verb followed by a word ending in “ing” or “ed,” you have even more risk of passive voice.
    • Passive: The dishes were washed by my sister.
      • Active version: My sister washed the dishes.
    • Passive: The vase was smashed by Heidi
      • Active version: Heidi smashed the vase.
    • It doesn’t always have to be “ing” or “ed”
      • Passive: The students were taught.
      • Passive: Janet was driven to the store.
  • Most important: Keep the “doer” of the action in mind. That person, place or thing should come before the verb. (Read link #2 above, the zombie one. It’s helpful to understand this.)
    • Passive: Recently, the work has been being done by John.
    • Active: Recently, John has been doing the work.

Do You HAVE to Get Rid of All Passive Voice?

passive-voice-tipI’m sure there are many opinions on when and how much passive voice is appropriate or acceptable. I think there are times when it is preferred. Again, the internet has much to say about this. In my experience, a good book editor can help you sort through passive voice (see my previous post on publishing). In general, though, I think you want to tend toward trying to keep it active whenever possible.

My Best Tip

Practice. I’m hardly an expert at getting rid of passive voice. I’m pretty sure The Travelers still has far more of it than I’d like. My knowledge comes from struggling with it and learning from that process.

If active voice doesn’t come naturally in your writing, who cares? Get your thoughts out on paper first. Then go back and see if you can figure out a way to change passive sentences to active voice. Make it a game. Read through your writing and challenge yopassive-voice-comicurself to identify 5 sentences and make them active. Sometimes you won’t want to change it. You’ll like it in passive voice. It works for the scene or the character. And I say – that’s OK! Like politics and sports, people should be allowed to have differing opinions. It makes the world more interesting.