If you have taken writing classes or read online writing tip sites, you probably have heard to use active voice rather than passive voice. You may have heard that active voice is full of energy and is easier to read while passive voice is the opposite.
To understand more about active and passive voice, let’s talk about what they are first.
What is Active Voice?
Active voice is when the subject is doing the action (the verb). The subject is doing something.
“John threw the ball.”
“Elise read the book.”
“Louis ran to the house.”
In every example, the subject performed the verb. John was the one who threw the ball. Elise was the one who read the book. Louis was the one who ran to the house. In cases for transitive verbs, the subject is performing an action on a direct object (the ball for John and the book for Elise).
What is Passive Voice?
Passive voice is when the subject is acted upon. The subject is NOT performing the action, and in these sentences, there’s a past participle (thrown, driven, given, loved, hugged, etc).
Examples of passive voice:
“The ball was thrown by John.”
“The book was read by Elise.”
“The letter was written by me.”
As you can see from our examples, our subjects are not performing the action. The ball wasn’t the one doing the throwing. The book wasn’t the one doing the reading. These subjects were acted upon.
Some people think that “to be” verbs ARE passive voice, which is incorrect. We use “to be” verbs all the time without being in passive voice. Many websites and instructors will also tell you that the passive voice has to follow the “to be” form. While most passive voice sentences do, this is not 100% true. A passive voice sentence can go like this:
“My dogs got caught eating the pillows.”
That example was in passive voice, even though there was no “to be” form. To rewrite this in active voice, it would be, “I caught my dogs eating the pillows.” Those “get” and “got” verbs can be tricky.
You also can’t make intransitive and linking verbs passive. Words such as “run”, “swim”, “arrive”, etc can only be in active voice. There is no way I can make my third active voice example (“Louis ran to the house”) into passive voice.
Why Write in Active Voice?
Active voice is clearer and more direct than passive voice. For novel writing, the best stories keep the readers turning the pages. Active voice has energy. It’s more exciting and interesting. It keeps readers engaged. After all, it is called active voice.
Also, most times, active voice is less wordy than passive voice. Cutting out unnecessary words always benefits your writing.
Is It Ever Okay to Write in Passive Voice?
When I’m grilling people about using active voice, it’s when they are writing academic, legal, scientific, business, and other formal papers. Whenever you are conveying a lot of information for the reader to learn, active voice is a must.
Novel writing is different. It has more freedoms. Writers are conveying a story rather than tons of information, and novel writing is meant to be creative.
In novel writing, using passive voice is all about strategy. There are times when it is better to use passive voice than active. Here are some situations where passive voice is better.
1. Emotions and Surprise
Passive voice is great tool when you want the readers to feel a particular emotion. Let’s say you want your reader to feel sympathy. Let’s look at this example:
“The town was hit by a tornado.”
We were introduced to the town first, and then we learn what happened to it. Your reader will more likely feel sympathy for the town when using passive voice than the active voice’s version, “A tornado hit the town.”
Now let’s say you want to surprise your reader. Back in the old days, Latin speakers used passive voice all the time to surprise others. Here’s our next example:
“The thief was chased away by a pink poodle.”
By having “pink poodle” at the end of the sentence, we surprise the reader. It’s not wrong to say, “A pink poodle chased away the thief”, but I prefer the passive voice version. In my opinion, it’s funnier– more of a surprise.
Words usually stand out at the end of a sentence, so if there’s something you want to emphasize, passive voice can help because the person or thing doing the action usually falls at the end of the sentence.
So for example, “A $100,000 donation was given by the President of the United States.”
Here, we’re emphasizing that it was the president who gave this huge donation. His title stands out because he’s at the end of the sentence.
3. Avoiding Names or Not Knowing Names
Some people will use passive voice to avoid name dropping.
For example, “The team was misrepresented.”
Who misrepresented the team? We don’t know, and maybe the author is purposefully leaving out names. Or maybe the author doesn’t know. Passive voice works great when we don’t know who’s doing the action or if we don’t want to reveal who’s doing the action.
Active voice is still a must. It’s more engaging and easier to read, but don’t be afraid to use passive voice. However, it’s not something to overuse. After all, it is called PASSIVE voice, and too much passive voice can weaken your writing.