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Monday, April 27, 2015

Week 17 Prefer the Active Voice--but Know When to Use the Passive

Week 17
by Peggy Urry

Ready. Set. Action!

One of the first things I learned as a new writer was that active voice is preferable to passive. That's all good, but what is active voice? (I'm still working on bettering my understanding of this concept.)

Here are a few examples:

"Active: I let go of the Cessna's strut and prayed my chute would open. (The subject performs the action.)

Passive: The Cessna's strut was* let go of and a prayer that my chute would open was* said by me. (The subject receives the action.)"1

*To be verbs (like was, is, been, etc.) are a red flag for passive voice. 

Active: The boys played basketball in the gym.

Passive: Basketball was played in the gym.

The beautiful and frustrating part of language and writing is that there are uses for all types. There are certain situations where passive voice is preferred: for Emphasis, for Diplomacy, and for Flow.

Emphasis: Consider the example above. If we want to emphasize basketball, we would use the passive voice. If we want to emphasize boys, we would use active.

Diplomacy: Use passive voice to avoid assigning blame or identifying who performed the action.

Active: You left your water bottles and trash all over the gym floor. (accusatory tone)

Passive: Water bottles and trash were left all over the gym floor. (diplomatic tone)

Flow: "Use the passive voice to facilitate coherence by linking the thought of one sentence to the next.

Active: The wail of a loon awakened me. Anyone who has canoed the Boundary Waters wilderness of northern Minnesota has heard the haunting sound.

Passive: I was awakened by the wail of a loon. This haunting sound has been heard by anyone who has canoed the Boundary Waters wilderness of northern Minnesota."2

In the Active example, the references to the loon's sound come at the beginning and then the end of the sentences. In the passive, they are connected and it improves the flow.


In your WIP, do a word search for passive verbs. Do they emphasize the right thing, add diplomacy, or improve flow? 

There are a lot of resources if you want to further explore this topic:

An old post by Donna Hatch is still very helpful IMHO. 

Oxford Dictionaries online has more examples.

And one to clarify or confuse you even more is the English Page.

TAMARA: I was surprised to see that it is week 17 already. Or is this more active? Week 17 surprised me. Didn't 2015 begin not too long ago? Or more passively, didn't the start of the year 2015 happen like, just yesterday? I'm rereading this chapter because that passive voice creeps into my writing when I'm not paying attention. A lot like kids becoming passive lounging/eating bodies when if I'm not there to supervise!! And thanks for the great resources!

VALERIE: My favorite part of this lesson is that he says we should know when to use the passive voice. When you first start out in the writing world you hear 2 things: Show don't tell! and Use active voice! After you've been around the (writer's) block (haha!) for awhile (attended your share of critique groups and writing conferences, not to mention revised a manuscript or two) you know that passive voice has a purpose. You gave great examples, Peggy.

[And sometimes you just need to tell instead of show for the same reasons you talk about in your post...emphasis and flow. Just saying.]  

1. Mastering the Craft of Writing, Wilbers, pg 90.
2. Mastering the Craft of Writing, Wilbers, pg 91.

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