Thursday, September 15, 2016

Passive vs. Active ~By Suzy Leopold

Does your current WIP have too many words? Are you looking for just the right word? You know the importance of word count and making every word count.

Perhaps it is time to revise. Let’s look at your manuscript and see what voice you used. As you revise, look for your author’s voice. Doing so, will help you to trim your word count, enhance your manuscript, and clarify the meaning of your story.

There are two types of writing voices. Sentences can be written in a passive voice or an active voice.

Definition of Passive Voice
Tells what is done to someone or something.
  • The action performs and is then followed by the subject. Sometimes the subject is missing.
  • The who or what receives the action and typically precedes the action [verb].
  • The reader is lost in the meaning of the story.
Writing passive sentences is not what you want for your story. A passive voice can sound wordy and awkward. Too many words confuses and looses your reader. Remember the importance of illustrations to tell the story. The pictures will enhance and show the story.

A sentence written in a passive voice may include the verb to be and a past participle of a verb. Look for and eliminate these words:
  • a
  • are
  • be
  • being
  • is
  • had been
  • was
  • were 
Now, let's look at the voice that is best for your story.

Definition of Active Voice
Tells what a person or thing does.
  • The subject performs the action.
  • The order is-subject followed by verb. 
  • The who or what receives the action and typically follows the action [verb].
  • The meaning of the story is clear to the reader.
Writing in an active voice is what you want for your story. An active voice is bold, precise and succinct.

Here are examples of a passive voice versus an active voice:

Passive Voice
Active Voice
The box is filled with picture books.
Picture books filled the box.

Now you try. Change the following sentences from passive to active voice. Remember to write the subject followed by the action.

1. The box of books was destroyed by the rain.
2. The mess will be cleaned by James tomorrow.
3. Reading is enjoyed by Danny.
4. The story was written by Joshua.
5. The letters had been written by the students.
6. The stamps were bought.

How did you do? Did you change each sentence into an active voice? Check for the answers at the end of this post.

As you revise and edit, think about your readers. What do you want the reader to focus on and how do you want to engage them? Eliminate the passive voice. Write in an active voice and choose your words wisely. 

Hope these tips along with the following chart from The Write Life are helpful to you as you revise, edit and polish your manuscript.
“A style that consists of passive constructions will sap the reader’s energy. 
The difference between an active-verb style 
and a passive-verb style–in clarity and vigor–is the 
difference between life and death for a writer.” 
~William Zinsser 

How did you score? Here are the answers:

1. The rain destroyed the box of books.
2. James will clean the mess tomorrow.
3. Danny enjoys reading.
4. Joshua wrote a fiction story.
5. The students wrote the letters.
6. Dad bought stamps.


  1. Great way to teach what can be a difficult subject, Suzy! love the exercises, too.

    1. Educators are always teaching. And you know this to be true as a librarian. You are appreciated, Kathy.

  2. great post, Suzy. passive/active is always a bugaboo. And I love the check-list you included.

    1. Hopefully passive/active sentences will no longer be an annoying bugbear for the readers of the GROG Blog. The check-list from The Write Life is a great resource. Thank you, Sue.

  3. Thanks for the tips, Suzy! I've saved the chart for further reference.

    1. Hi Jarm:
      Hope the chart comes in handy to support your writing.

  4. Thank you, Suzy, for these fab tips and examples :) I've saved your post.

    1. Thank you for reading and saving this post, Charlotte. May all of your manuscripts be fabulous.

  5. Brevity!
    Maybe that will add to my story's longevity?

    Suzy, I am a big offender of sharing too many words.
    Appreciations so much, for this keen reminder.

    1. Sometimes many words are needed to tell the story, Jan. May your stories be true to your voice that include longevity.

  6. I needed this kick-in-the-pants reminder as I sit here editing!