To-Act or To-Be-Acted-Upon

 

ACTIVE OR PASSIVE VOICE: THAT IS THE QUESTION!

By Julia Ash

In fiction writing, active voice is preferred over passive voice, which means passive-voice pitfalls should be avoided.

Are you laughing-out-loud?

I confess! I used passive voice in the first sentence to demonstrate how passive sentence-structure can create confusion. And when a reader is confused, she may stop reading. (Below, I’ll shift this sentence from passive to active so you can see the difference.)

As a communications major (versus an English major), I have limitations analyzing grammar and style at the needle-in-a-haystack level. However, fiction readers don’t need English degrees; they know when writing yields clarity and when it doesn’t! As a reader, my take on passive voice seems to align with experts: Writers should avoid passive voice unless they weave it into their writing with purpose. More times than not, passive voice results in pitfalls such as unclear subjects, high wordcounts, excessive prepositions, and dangling modifiers.

Before providing examples of passive-voice pitfalls, I’ll define the active and passive voices in simple terms.

ACTIVE VOICE:

Subject A [a person, place, or thing] does something [an action—in the past, present or future] to Object B [a person, place, or thing].

Example:

Lightning illuminated the room.

PASSIVE VOICE:

Object B [a person, place, or thing] undergoes something [is acted upon—in the past, present, or future] by Subject A [a person, place, or thing].

Example:

The room was illuminated by lightning.

Tip: Readers can spot passive voice when the auxiliary verb “to be” precedes the primary verb (i.e., “was illuminated”) and is followed with “by,” as is the case in the above example. But passive voice exists beyond this formula!

Here are examples of passive-voice pitfalls:

Unclear Subjects:

If a reader asks “by whom?” after reading a sentence, the writer likely used passive voice. Take the very first sentence in this article:

In fiction writing, active voice is preferred (by whom?) over passive voice, which means passive-voice pitfalls should be avoided (by whom?).

Shift from passive to active voice:

In fiction writing, editors prefer active voice over passive voice, which means writers should avoid passive-voice pitfalls. (“Readers” or “agents” etc. could have replaced “editors” which proves the original sentence was too ambiguous using passive voice.)

High Wordcounts:

Passive voice can create higher wordcounts than active voice, without adding positive impact.

Passive voice example:

Twirling a cluster of hair, *connections were sought by Tess who tried to mentally link the dots. (17 words) (*See dangling modifiers below.)

Shift from passive to active voice:

Twirling a cluster of hair, Tess sought connections and tried to mentally link the dots. (15 words) Or… Twirling a cluster of hair, Tess sought connections, trying to mentally link the dots. (14 words)

In a 90,000-word manuscript, words add up quickly! Active voice produces tighter writing.

Excessive Prepositions:

Active voice generally requires less prepositions, adding to increased readability and lower wordcounts. Passive voice yields the opposite.

Passive voice example:

The shotgun carried by Tess had been handed down by her father; and although the stock was weathered, *a grouse was never missed with the aged Kimber. (3 prepositions) (*See dangling modifiers below.)

Shift from passive to active voice:

Tess carried the shotgun handed down by her father; and although the stock was weathered, the aged Kimber never missed a grouse. (1 preposition)

Tighter still:

Tess carried her father’s weathered Kimber which never missed a grouse. (0 prepositions)

*Dangling Modifiers:

When a clause modifies the wrong subject/object, a dangling modifier exists. The passive-voice example above illustrates this grammatical error, causing reader confusion.

Passive voice example:

The shotgun carried by Tess had been handed down by her father; and although the stock was weathered, a grouse was never missed with the aged Kimber.

Grammatical error:

Because of passive voice, the clause (“although the stock was weathered”) improperly modifies “grouse” when it should modify the Kimber.

Shift from passive to active voice:

Tess carried the shotgun handed down by her father; and although the stock was weathered, the aged Kimber never missed a grouse.

Here’s another example from above…

Passive voice example:

Twirling a cluster of hair, connections were sought by Tess who was trying to mentally link the dots.

Grammatical error:

Because of passive voice, the clause (“twirling a cluster of hair”) improperly modifies “connections” when it should modify Tess.

Shift from passive to active voice:

Twirling a cluster of hair, Tess sought connections and tried to mentally link the dots.

I’ve heard that passive voice shouldn’t exceed 5-percent of a manuscript. I would love to hear if you’ve heard a different statistic or if you have thoughts on this issue! (To check on your manuscript’s passive-voice percentage, “select all” and run a spell-check review; it should provide a variety of stats, including the percentage of passive sentences.) But no matter what the acceptable threshold is for using passive voice, writers should be cautious of pitfalls!

Thank you for reading this article! Please follow me on Facebook (Julia Ash) and Twitter (@Author_JuliaAsh)

Notes:

  • This article uses passive voice 23.0%—high due to my examples!
  • Sometimes writers use passive voice to intentionally provide sentence-structure variety, especially when readers understand who or what the subject is.

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