Voice – Passive VS Active

The concept of “voice” in literature is the use of vocabulary, structure, tone, syntax, and pace by the narrator for a particular story. These aspects work in concert with one another to create a distinct voice.

When readers refer to the style of writing in a book, they’re referring to the voice used. Writing gothic horror? Well, the voice you use will likely be long, descriptive, and oozing with dread. Writing a modern comedy? You’ll likely employ quick, snappy lines of dialogue.

If you’ve ever taken a course or class on creative writing, or just spent enough time pining through online forums, you’ll see how despised the passive voice is. There’s good reason for that! But, as writers, should we ALWAYS use the active voice? To answer the question, let’s first look at the differences between these two voice types.

Passive Voice is when a subject of the clause is receiving action of the verb. You can usually catch these with the way the tend to end with a statement like “by clowns” (a prepositional phrase), or could end with something similar.

Example: The balloon was inflated by a clown.

Active Voice is when the subject of the clause is performing an action to the verb. You can notice these by the way the subject typically comes before the action.

Example: A clown inflated the balloon.

The reason why the active voice is favoured over passive in creative work is easily observed in the above examples. The active voice emphasis the subject and flows nicely, while the passive voice seems distant and anticlimactic.

The active voice is more engaging to a reader!

But, we do hear the passive voice. All the time, actually. In normal everyday life, people often use the passive voice (talking, texting, academic or business work, etc.) which is where our own habits of using it as writers can come from. A good use of the passive voice are scientific studies since the subject is what’s being affected through observation. Who’s observing doesn’t matter since the the writing style is objective, not subjective.

So, this brings me back to the question of whether you should always use the active voice in creative writing. The answer is… yes, 99% of the time. A narrator should always be employing the active voice while it would be perfectly fine (and realistic) to have some characters in the story make use of the passive voice in their dialogue.

Straight forward, right? If “active” is the name of the game, then just write every sentence in an active voice. Well, it’s not that easy! Every single sentence has the ability to be one or the other, and there’s hundreds of sentences in every short story. Thousands in a novel.

For me, I STRUGGLE at this. My first drafts are unintentionally riddled with the passive voice. In trying to tackle this, I’ve come across a couple strategies to help. A really helpful tip is to use the “read aloud” feature in Microsoft Word to help catch examples audibly. Hearing it often makes the passive voice easier to catch. Also, if you’re unsure whether a sentence is passive or not then try slapping a prepositional phrase (eg – by clowns) on the end and see if it still makes sense. That won’t catch them all but you’ll weed out quite a few.

Also, it also pains me to come across passive passages in my earlier stories that’s already printed or posted. If you’re in the same boat then be sure to take it as a sign of growth and not beat yourself up!

Do you also struggle with this same active/passive mix-up occasionally? Have you found some tips / tricks to overcome this? Let me know by commenting or leaving a message!

Keep turning the page,


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