Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Passive Voice

It's Wordy Wednesday, and that means...
...time for some reflections from the editor's desk!

English is a funny language. We want our stories to compel our reader’s attention, from the first sentence, all the way through to the end of the book. Just do a Wikipedia search of passive voice. It will make your head spin. However, the rules of passive voice affects us all, especially in fiction. We want our prose to carry power and punch. Passive voice generally creates sentences that lack those ideals.

Here is an example of a sentence in passive voice.

The man was bumped by the elephant.

In passive voice, the recipient of the action becomes the subject, making the subject the man. But he is not active. He’s just the receiver of the elephant’s action.
Contrast that with the sentence below in active voice.

The elephant bumped the man.

In an active sentence, the subject commits the action. So the elephant, the subject, is doing the action.  He bumps the man. The man is the object of the sentence.

Grammar lesson over. I know this is a confusing subject.

I found a great example on Grammar Girl, using a Marvin Gaye song title.

“I Heard It through the Grapevine.” 

"I" is the subject, the one who is doing the action. "I" is hearing "it," the object of the sentence.

If you wanted to make the title of the Marvin Gaye song passive, you would say, “It was heard by me through the grapevine.” -- not such a catchy title anymore.

You can see how the active voice carries so much more punch, and makes a more compelling read.

How do we fix this in our own work? Sometimes, just flipping a sentence can help. Like this example:

Her books were piled in the center of the table as she peered at him from over the top.
She peered at him over the top of her books piled on the center of the table.

It’s a simple fix, and it changes the cadence and the strength of the sentence.

When you do your next spelling and grammar check and a passive sentence pops up, these tools can help you make your sentences and your manuscript stronger.

However, you might find sentences where the method of flipping won’t work:

Daniel grinned to himself as the velvet curtains were pulled shut.

This sentence doesn’t lend itself to a complete flip with "were pulled shut quickly." But one good fix is:

Daniel grinned to himself as the velvet curtains twitched shut.

Monica Britt is an editor at Champagne Books. 


  1. A great topic, Monica!

    I was introduced to the passive voice during my first encounter with editing. Wow! Threw me for a loop.

    But I did a lot of reading and exercises to help me overcome it. One thing I found helpful:

    Look for sentences where you could add, "By zombies" - these are passive, often in disguise.

    And that bit about activating your prose is so true! The majority of those passive voice passages are dead phrases waiting for verbs to bring them to life. Its like you've forged a dull sword, but oh how it shines when you sharpen it for battle!


    1. Thank you! I learned through much trial and error with my writing group!

  2. Excellent topic, Monica. And so important. Active sentence structure really pulls the reader in deeper to the story.