Active Voice

Posted by on February 24, 2012 in Fiction, Literature, On Writing | Comments Off on Active Voice

Active Voice


written by Jared Saathoff

When we write we must consciously decide between active voice and passive voice. The difference between active and passive is roughly the difference between quick and to the point and a meandering missive. e.g.

– The dog bites. active

– People have been bitten by the dog. passive

Which one serves as a better warning to people unfamiliar with the naughty biting dog?

A writer with confidence and a clear mind for their craft shudders after falling into the pitfalls of passive voice. Passive voice is a tool to remove authority or responsibility, and it creates a palpable barrier between the writer and the story as well as the story and the reader. In most cases a story in passive voice is two to three times longer than the equivalent active story. It then feels like a story ten times as long for the reader. It’s like a poorly edited movie: only 90 minutes in length but you feel like you wasted your whole evening watching the movie.

As a general rule I advise writers to avoid passive voice as much as possible, but often this causes confusion since very few people are familiar with active voice. Active writing is clear and often concise—not to say it can’t be frilly and make literary types swoon. Active voice is when the subject is performing the action. Basically the subject/noun is doing the action/verb. In some ways active voice is—to borrow a page from dime-store psychology—the type-A personality. Say what really happened. e.g.

– James drew his gun and shot Randy in the face. active

-Randy was shot in the face after James drew his gun to shoot Randy. passive

Passive voice is more like the wish-washy type-B personality. Well, this thing it kinda-sorta happened and you get my meaning but you kinda have to put it back together for yourself because I don’t want to be too direct. Passive voice wears readers out—after awhile it feels like hanging out with that annoying friend who always wants to do something but never has any suggestions. The classic, “Oh, I don’t know whatever you’d like.”

One of the easiest ways to notice if you’re writing in the passive voice is to look for the tell-tale words: has, was, and were before the verb. Think of it as chaff getting between your noun and your verb. Keeping your subject verb agreement (staying in active voice) in order helps to move even the dullest of material forward. A positive attitude helps you through the worst of weeks; writing in active voice helps getting through the dullest of assignments, like a short article about active voice.

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