Friday, October 1, 2010

Choosing Active or Passive Voice - Why Should We? By Rebecca J. Vickery

Editors and Publishers always say: “SHOW, don’t tell!”

Why? What is the big deal?

The simple answer I received over and over again: “Our readers want action. They don’t want to be told what happened, they want to be drawn into the action. They want to escape into the story and experience it through the characters.”

Active and Passive Voices are the difference between showing and telling. What are Active and Passive Voice?

Active voice, when written well, draws the reader in, lets them share in the story, and involves and excites the emotions. It SHOWS what happens. The characters live the story and take the reader along.

Passive voice, through the use of passive verbs and sentence construction, pushes our readers back, removes them from the action, and makes them sit in their chair while being TOLD what happened.

A very smart lady once asked me, “Would you rather swim in the pool or sit on the side and watch others have fun in the water?” Her point being: Active is swimming in the pool and Passive is watching others swim in the water. A simplistic way of saying it, but I’m a simple kind of gal. My quandary is I really do think there is the odd time when watching is better, but I must admit, normally I’d rather be swimming.

Then is Passive Voice always wrong? Should I always choose Active Voice over Passive Voice? Many of my sentences just don’t sound right without a “was” or an “is” or even a “has been”.

This answer by Dennis G Jerz ( was one of the easiest for me to grasp:

The Passive Voice Is not Wrong - Passive verbs are not automatically wrong. When used rarely and deliberately, the passive voice serves an important purpose. Use them to best effect in these instances:

When you wish to downplay the action: example - Mistakes will be made, and lives will be lost; the sad truth is learned anew by each generation.

When you wish to downplay the actor: example - Three grams of reagent 'A' were added to a beaker of 10% saline solution. (The writer avoided switching to first person involving the use of “I” by using Passive Voice.)

When the actor is unknown: example - The victim was approached from behind and hit over the head with a salami.

How do we, as writers, make sure we are showing rather than telling?

A short refresher on verbs and sentence structure might help. After all, it’s been a while since high school and/or college English for most of us.

Choosing Active or Passive Verbs? The voice of a verb indicates the strength of the subject in a sentence. It tells us whether that subject takes action or receives action. There are two possible voices: active and passive. In the active voice, the stronger form, the subject of the sentence takes the action of the verb. Our army won the battle. The subject army is strong since it takes action. This sentence uses the active voice. In the passive voice, the weaker form, the subject is acted upon. The battle was won by our army. In this sentence, the subject battle is weak because it receives the action of the army. It takes no action of its own —a battle cannot win itself — and so the sentence uses the passive voice.

Learn to recognize the differences in Active/Passive sentence structure.

Mr. Jerz ( once again had some useful information:

How to Recognize Active and Passive Sentences

Find the subject (the main character of the sentence).

Find the main verb (the action that the sentence identifies).

Examine the relationship between the subject and main verb.

Does the subject perform the action of the main verb? (If so, the sentence is active.)

Does the subject sit there while something else (named or unnamed) performs an action on it? (If so, the sentence is passive.)

Can't tell? If the main verb is a linking verb ("is," "was," "are," "seems (to be)," "becomes" etc.), then the verb functions like an equals sign; there is no action involved -- it merely describes a state of being. The sentence is neither Active or Passive (but in most cases editors and publishers consider them passive as they show no action - use these sparingly in creative writing)

The most helpful advice is to write. Write a short paragraph then dissect what you write as above and see if it is active or passive and why. See which you like best and which gets your message across to your readers.

Happy Writing!

Rebecca J. Vickery can be found at:

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Redameter said...

Active and passive, oh yeah. WEll, I'm one who uses too much passive, not because I like to watch them swim but because the passive comes to me more often than not. But it is a good lesson and hard one to learn.

Great article I would like to read and reread.
Love and blessings

Author Maud Muller also writing as E.M. Muller said...

Really appreciated this post. I'm an author who is constantly struggling to "show" instead of "tell". I've printed this out and will keep in on my writing desk and perhaps it will finally sink in.

Thanks again.


Julia Rachel Barrett said...

Interesting. I try to use active but sometimes only a passive voice will do. It's a balancing act.

Dee Julian said...

Great post, Rebecca! My daughter asked me once if she could try out for the cheerleading squad. Growing up a tomboy and sports nut, I literally cringed before replying, "Amber, would you rather cheer about the game or be IN the game and hear others cheering for YOU?" She got the message. And I agree, Julia...using active and passive verbs is a balancing act. If weak verbs can be elimated though, the sentence reads much better.

Cheryl said...

Hey Rebecca,
Great post! This is sometimes a problem for me, and your examples sure make it clear. Thanks so much for this!

Golden Healer said...

I have always tried to write "actively", lol, even as a kid. But I found it is very easy to slip in unnecessary passive verbs, and it quite clogs one's writing!


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katekindle said...

Hi, Rebecca. Important lesson about active voice. I try to think of a story line as a news story and then it becomes active and immediate for me. Victory Tales Press site is looking very jazzy! I have just come from there and left a comment about "A Halloween Collection Anthology: Sweet". I sure am happy today is the official launch of this collection. Thanks for asking me to write a story. I enjoyed it.

Diane Craver said...

Hi Rebecca,
Great article about keeping story in active voice. I do have a tendency to write too much in passive voice. I'll keep this post for reference.

Thanks for writing it!

Karen Michelle Nutt said...

Love the post and so easy to follow.

Thanks for sharing. :)