As writers, we want our work to be powerful. We want our words to elicit emotions and strong reactions. We want our prose to resonate.
If your goal is to ensure compelling writing, avoid using passive voice. In this article, we’ll examine what passive voice is and why it saps the power from your writing.
What Is Passive Voice, Anyway?
The term might seem complex at first, but passive voice is simple.
Consider this sentence: Maddie walked the dog.
Maddie is the subject in this sentence because she’s the one affecting the object (walking). The dog is the object because it’s being acted upon (being walked). The sentence uses active voice, because the subject is clearly taking action.
Now let’s consider this sentence in the passive voice.
The dog was walked by Maddie.
The object and subject are switched, creating a passive sentence. The subject is being acted upon.
In short: Passive voice occurs when the object is performing the action.
Why Passive Voice Takes the Power Out of Your Writing
In passive constructions like the one above, writing is less direct. Using passive voice obscures the sentence’s meaning and misdirects the action. This sentence structure weakens the message.
Consider the following sentence: The queen terrified the peasants.
In this sentence, the queen is terrifying the peasants. She has the power in the sentence. She’s the first one mentioned as well as the one performing the verb. The queen not only does the action, she retains agency in the sentence.
The peasants were terrified by the queen.
In passive construction, the peasants are the first item listed in the sentence. Instead of the queen retaining power, the reader thinks about the peasants: how they’re affected and what they’re doing.
How to Fix Passive Constructions
While passive construction can take the power out of your writing, it’s simple to fix these mistakes in your work.
Follow the steps below to eliminate the passive voice in your work.
Step 1: Locate your subject
The subject is the person or thing taking an action.
The dog was bitten by the cat.
Is the dog the subject? It may be the first noun in the sentence, but what was it doing? The dog wasn’t doing anything, so it can’t be the subject.
The cat, however, was doing something: biting. Therefore the cat is the subject in the sentence.
Step 2: Locate your object
Now that you have identified the subject in the sentence, look for the object.
The dog was bitten by the cat.
Whom or what was the cat biting? The dog, of course! Because we don’t know what the dog is up to and it’s being acted upon by something else, we can safely assume that the dog is the object in the sentence.
Step 3: Switch your sentence around
The final step in making the switch is putting the subject at the front of the sentence and the object towards the end.
The cat bit the dog.
Make clear in your sentence WHO is doing WHAT to WHOM or WHAT.
When you set up sentences this way, your brain can create a clear image. You first picture a cat. Then you picture a cat biting a dog. The action stays with the subject.
Imagine if you pictured the dog reacting to being bit first. The cat’s power is gone. It becomes a secondary character in its own story. And we all know cats can’t stand being secondary to anything.
Use an editing tool
A good editing tool like ProWritingAid can do the hard work by scanning your document and highlighting every instance of passive voice. Sometimes passive construction will be right for your sentence, but more often than not, you can rewrite it.
When sentence structure obscures the subject, who or what is performing the action becomes confusing.
You can by making your subject perform the action (verb). By doing so, you’ll return the power in your writing to its proper place.
Hayley is a former teacher turned writer/content manager. She is the driving force behind all the amazing content on the ProWritingAid blog. Hayley is obsessed with writing techniques and loves creating content. Bonus points if it’s about Star Wars. She is the coauthor of How to Build Your Author Platform on a Shoestring and Museum Hack’s Guide to History’s Fiercest Females.
Get your 101 writing prompts today
Need help getting started writing? Use these proven writing prompts. I'll also send you practical writing advice and more as part of my newsletter.