If an editor suggests writing things in active voice, what does this really mean?
In a nutshell, with sentences written in active voice, the subject performs the action that is expressed in the verb. It can sometimes be a strange concept to grasp, but with practice and repetition, you’ll start to notice it everywhere, especially on radio & TV news bulletins.
For our first example:
Active: The company ships the computers overseas.
In this instance, the company is the subject, and performs the action, which in this instance is the word ‘ships’.
However, in passive voice, the subject sometimes disappears, and the object – in this case the computers – have the action performed on them by the subject.
Passive: Computers are shipped overseas.
In this example, we don’t know the subject, so the reader is left to assume that the computers are shipped “by the company”
Active voice tells us who is doing what.
Active: The chef is preparing the food.
Compare this to the Passive: The food is being prepared.
The implication in the passive example is that someone is preparing food, but the writer hasn’t told us the subject. It could be a group of students, chefs, or even criminals keen to mend their ways.
They key “flag” to look for in passive voice is not past tense, but the implied “by whom”, usually left off the end of a sentence.
The boy kicked the ball – active
The ball was kicked by the boy – passive
The delivery man brought the package yesterday - active
The package was delivered yesterday – passive.
Implied “by whom” – you assume it was the postie. But it might have been a neighbour, a lover, or a carrier pigeon.
Passive voice is often indirect, whereas active voice makes things more direct. Use active voice when you want to pick up the pace and move things along.
There is nothing wrong with their passive or active voice, it’s more a matter of working out which works best for your situation. If you’re writing a non-fiction report or analysis, then passive voice can work well. If you’re writing a novel full of action and romance, (gee, really?) then active can keep things humming.
One of the drawbacks of passive voice is that it can let people off the hook.
We made mistakes – active. This means you’ve owned up to your mistakes.
Mistakes were made – passive – leading the reader to wonder, “yes, but who made them and who can I blame?”
So the key is to read a sentence and ask yourself if you know who’s doing it, or who’s done it. If you’re left wondering ‘by what or by whom’ then it’s passive voice.
Snares, traps and blunders:
Avoid starting a sentence in active voice and then shifting to passive, or vice versa.
Voice shift: Many customers in the restaurant found the coffee too bitter to drink, but it was still ordered frequently.
Revised: Many customers in the restaurant found the coffee too bitter to drink, but they still ordered it frequently.
Voice shift: He tried to act cool when he slipped in the puddle, but he was still laughed at by the other students.
Revised: He tried to act cool when he slipped in the puddle, but the other students still laughed at him.
Now that you’ve seen a few examples, you’ll find yourself noticing them more and more. It doesn’t mean passive is ‘wrong’ but when it’s overused, it makes things sound dull and lifeless. Listen to ABC 774 news and it’s full of passive voice. I’ll bet they haven’t noticed!
Where Passive voice works well.
There are often times when passive voice requires less text, because of the implied subject.
"Rules are made to be broken," he said defiantly. Is a great use of passive voice. To put this in active voice, would weaken the idea that some rules really are made to be broken. “I was made to break rules” makes me sound like I’m up myself
“Trespassers prosecuted”. Is a fine example of good passive. To write this in active, you’d need to say something like “We will prosecute trespassers”
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Ebony McKenna is published in Young Adult fiction her webpage is http://www.ebonymckenna.com/
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