How to Keep Active– Voice, That Is


Passive voice plagues my writing. It creeps into my verbiage and wears away at clarity. I wrestle with alternatives to passive voice daily. I despise those little green squiggly lines that appear from the accusing finger of the grammar police. Passive voice fattens my word count, but it whittles away at the strength of my story.

workout pencil

What exactly is passive voice, and how do I stop it?

I recall Mrs. Whitworth, my fifth/ sixth grade teacher, warning us of the passive verbs: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, and been. All those years ago I took notes and nodded, unaware of the true danger that lurked in these villains. When I find these words in my stories, I see red flags.

Like saturated fat in food, these words manifest themselves in our sentences and add inches without substance. They waste pages and gray cells.

Observe the differences in these two passages:

She had been walking for nearly an hour before she had discovered that her dog had been left at home. (20 words)

She walked an hour before discovering she left her dog at home. (12 words)

The first sentence is padded and unclear. “She had been walking…” You can trim that statement by fifty percent by changing it to, “She walked…”

Let’s continue. “…for nearly an hour…” Does it make a difference if it was fifty-four minutes or sixty-one? Unless it does, trim it. (This point doesn’t refer to passive voice, but to lean writing.)

“…before she had discovered…” Again, let’s slim the sentence to, “before discovering…” Feel the burn.

“…that her dog had been left at home.” Hmmm, who left her dog at home? We assume that she forgot the pooch, but without context, who knows? Let’s solve this with, “… she left her dog at home.” She executes the action.

Using only seventy percent of the words, we said the same thing, only more clearly. Is seventy percent a big deal? In a two hundred-page book that translates into a sixty page savings. Consider the trees we’ll conserve!

Is using passive voice always bad? Of course it’s not. I’m a big believer in moderation. Those who know say that five to eight percent passive voice is acceptable for most projects, but consult with your publisher. Even at five percent, examine your work to see if those passive terms are necessary.Writing Exercise

How do I train myself not to use passive verse? For a first draft, I don’t worry about voice—I just get the words out! However, when I go back to rewrite and polish, I use the “find” tool in my word processing program, to highlight all the passive verbs listed above, one at a time.

Once I find each occurrence, I look at the passage for a more concise way to word it. The process can be daunting, but investing the effort now could pay with publication later. Isn’t that the goal?

What is active voice? My sons’ elementary teachers called it using “spicy” words. I like that term.

Technically our goal is to construct a sentence in which the subject performs the action in question. They should not be the object (or victim) of the action.

Example: Joe was beaten by Mary in the race. “…was beaten…” is passive. I’ll change it to, “Mary beat Joe in the race.” If I wish to be more precise, I make it, “Mary finished the race before Joe.” In both changes, I cut the length by twenty-five percent. In the second solution, I clarified the statement that Mary ran faster than Joe did, and that she wasn’t hitting him with a bat while they raced.

Active verbs engage the reader. They paint the pictures in our imaginations. A trim, tight story employs verbs that describe the action as it happens. The readers experience the scene. When a writer tickles the reader’s brain, she keeps their attention. The tale becomes more satisfying.

Cut out the fat and you produce a healthier, more interesting story.

by Kimberly Black, http://kimblackink.com

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