Tips for New Writers: Active vs Passive Voice

Look, while we’d like to imagine that authors are masters of their craft, that’s just not always true, and thank God for that. There are a lot of wonderful stories to be told, and I hate the idea that the world will never see them because there is a gap between what knowledge a writer should have and what they do.

This series is my attempt to bridge that gap and get your story one step closer to being published.

Who would benefit from this series?

Anyone who wants to better their draft and improve their self-edit game.

How many articles will be in the series?

At least seven, but I plan on expanding on each article and building the idea further as we go. It will help me a lot if I can get feedback along the way. I’ll keep going as long as there’s something to talk about!

Let’s Get Started

This first article is about active versus passive voice. It’s such a basic but important part of crafting a story that I think it needs to be discussed first. You can always go back to add commas or move quotation marks, but you don’t want to write a whole book from start to finish in passive voice and then fix it later. That requires rewriting the whole thing. Don’t do that. Work smarter, not harder.

What is passive voice?

Passive voice is when your subject is having an action performed on them by the verb. It’s a strange way of communicating, but we all do it at some point, and let me explain why.

There are two types of writers. Those that write by stepping into a character, and those that write as if watching a movie. Sometimes the same person can do both at different times, but it is that perspective shift that creates an issue with passive versus active voice.

For Example

Imagine you are ‘watching’ this story as it happens:
Back and forth, Jane was being wrenched through the air by the beast’s mighty maw.

That sentence only makes sense if you are watching and telling the story as a bystander giving the audience a play-by-play because, for some reason, they can’t see it themselves. Again, it has a time and place, but not in a novel where the reader is meant to see the action as it happens.

What is active voice?

Active voice is when your subject acts on the verb. These sentences are clear, direct, and impactful because the subject is actively doing the action (verb).

Readers prefer an active voice because they can submerge themselves into the characters and imagine performing the actions. I’ll consider creating another article later that talks about the point of view and examines a reader’s gaze in-depth, but for now, just accept that this is true.

For Example

This first example is from the beast’s point of view:
The beast wrenched Jane back and forth in its mighty maw.

Now we see it from Jane’s point of view:
Jane was wrenched back and forth through the air by the beast’s mighty maw.

4/15/22 – Ahhhhh! As Jen Lewis point out, I did it again (at 3 am everything looks right sometimes…) and I didn’t even notice it. I highlighted my mistake in both examples so we can understand why they are the same.

Let’s try this again. I don’t think we can use the example sentence in the same way from Jane’s point of view, but I invite everyone to comment with more examples for Jane. Sometimes we have to workshop this thing. 😉 I’ll update this article with all of your active voice examples!

I would argue that neither sentence is better or worse than the previous passive example, but it matters because a reader can only be a passive observer for so long before they lose interest. If you imagine that your reader is a small child being told a bedtime story, then your story should be short for that same reason. The degree of investment is lesser when you are told about something versus being an active participant.

Is it ever okay to use passive voice in a novel?

Of course. If you play with multiple points of view, if you have a character telling a story, or if you are a brave soul trying to convey your story in the most difficult way possible just to prove you can. Just be careful.

If you’re not sure if you’re using a passive voice too much, I’ve written another article that explains what kinds of edits you need right now.

Another great resource for fiction writers is Marcy Kennedy’s Grammar for Fiction Writers (Busy Writer’s Guide Book 5), available on Kindle.