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Ditch the Passive Voice and Get Active

Writing isn’t easy. In fact, it can be quite challenging. To be effective, writers not only have to develop strong ideas and tell great stories, they must also think of grammar, syntax, voice, tone, audience, and style guides, to name a few. This can be mind numbing to say the least!

Of course, one blog post can’t even begin to tap the surface of all these things, so for this one, I’m going to tackle passive voice. That way, instead of your writing being loved by your readers, readers will love your writing! See where I’m going with this?

What is Passive Voice and Why Does it Matter?

When the subject of a sentence is acted on by a verb or, put another way: “when you make the object of an action into the subject of a sentence,” then the sentence is written in passive voice. While using passive voice is not technically a grammatical error and it is okay, even sometimes appropriate, when used sparingly, writing is much clearer and more impactful when using the active voice. Active voice is just passive voice in reverse; the subject is completing the action.

Overusing passive voice can make content fall flat. Not only that, but it can create awkward sentences and make the text harder to read. The last thing anyone wants is for readers to think their articles are boring or cumbersome, so avoid writing in passive voice as much as possible.

Tips and Tricks on How to Spot Passive Voice

One of the simplest ways to spot passive voice is by scrutinizing all verb phrases that include a form of be (was, am, are, been, is). Scrutinizing is key, though, because there are many times when active voice uses this verb form. For those of you whose brain begins to melt at the thought of checking for passive voice, Rebecca Johnson came up with a unique and fun way to help identify this issue.

Johnson’s technique is this: “if you can add “by zombies” after the verb and it makes sense, you probably have passive voice.” Of course, this will not work in all instances, but at least it makes checking for passive voice more entertaining. It sure does for The Walking Dead lovers like me!

Another tool to utilize is Microsoft Word’s Passive Sentences feature. While you should never rely solely on word processing programs to catch grammar mistakes or stylistic issues, they are quite helpful.

Show, Don’t Tell

Seeing is believing, so here are a few examples of passive voice and how they would read using the active voice. I’ll even use Johnson’s zombie technique for this demonstration because, well, it's awesome! Not to mention I have a mild (okay, maybe a little more than mild) obsession with zombie shows and movies!

Example #1

Passive: The new Honda Africa Twin was liked by most of the journalists.

The new Honda Africa Twin was liked by zombies.

Active: Most of the journalists liked the new Honda Africa Twin.

Most of the journalists liked by zombies the new Honda Africa Twin.

Example #2

Passive: The town was destroyed by a violent tornado.

The town was destroyed by zombies.

Active: A violent tornado destroyed the town.

A violent tornado destroyed by zombies the town.

Example #3

Passive: The trip is being taken by experienced motorcyclists only.

The trip is being taken by zombies only.

Active: Only experienced motorcyclists are taking the trip.

Only experienced motorcyclists are taking by zombies trip.

As you can see, when revised to active voice, the examples were stronger, less awkward, and easier to understand. Furthermore, adding “by zombies” after the verbs when revised to active voice no longer made sense. By implementing Johnson’s zombie technique, you can have a little fun when you’re proofing your writing and improve your craft in the process.

Mastering passive/active voice makes your writing easier for your readers to understand and helps strengthen your reputation as an effective writer. Now go get active—and don't let the zombies eat your brains!

If you have a specific writing issue you would like to see covered, have more questions about using passive/active voice, or have any tips of your own you'd like to share, be sure to leave a comment.

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