One key to holding a reader’s interest from beginning to end is mastering the skill of writing in the “active voice.”
It isn’t that difficult, actually—you do it all the time—but it’s very easy to make the mistake of slipping into passive voice throughout your work.
Passive voice, left unchecked, slaughters reader interest more efficiently than a glaring typo.
When a reader catches a small misspelling, they at least can chalk it up to a mistake, but when they read too much passive voice in your writing, well, they just think you’re boring.
How to spot passive voice in your writing
You end up with passive voice when you get your nouns out of order within a sentence. The doer, not the thing done to, should precede the verb in the sentence. For example:
“James wrote a killer blog post.”
“The killer blog post was written by James.”
You already know the difference in readability between those two sentences, and that’s because passive voice usually doesn’t feel right or sound natural to you.
You can also spot passive voice when you look for two verbs stuck together: “was written” was the dead giveaway in the example above. Other common red flags of passive language include “has been,” “will be” and “to be.”
For the most part, you’ll write in active voice instinctively. You automatically knew the second sentence would sound clunky if you said it out loud, so chances are low that you’d ever consider writing it that way.
However, passive voice is a sneaky devil, especially in longer or more complex sentences where it’s easy to misjudge the subject and the object. Look at this example:
“The sports of hockey, curling and ice skating are loved by Canadians in particular.”
That looks straightforward and readable, right? Now compare it with this version:
“Canadians particularly love hockey, curling and ice skating.”
Read them both out loud. (Whisper if you must.) The second one (in active voice) is easier to say, which means it’s easier to read. It has more energy. It doesn’t feel as though it’s trailing off into boredom.
How to fix passive voice instantly
Passive voice is easy to fix. Just rewrite your sentence so that the subject of your sentence comes before the verb. You’ll find your sentences tighten up as you do so, improving your writing. RELATED: Learn 10 ways to improve your writing today with this free download.
Checking your sentences for passive voice may seem like a chore, but it’s not as demanding as scouring your text for typos. Just keep your eyes open for action-based sentences.
If someone is doing something, double-check to see if it looks like the “something” was being done to them.
You can also check for passive voice using the Hemmingway App, a website that scans your writing for examples of passive voice and difficult-to-read sentences. It’ll also gives you an indication of the grade level of your writing, which is a nice plus.
Why is passive voice so pervasive in writing?
I’ll leave that to Stephen King, who said it best in his book On Writing:
I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers love passive partners. The passive voice is safe. There is no troublesome action to contend with; the subject just has to close its eyes and think of England, to paraphrase Queen Victoria. I think that unsure writers also feel the passive voice somehow lends their work authority, perhaps even a quality of majesty. If you find instruction manuals and lawyer’s torts majestic, I guess it does.
I agree with this. Far too often writers believe that they have to make their writing sound impressive and wordy—I mean, “eloquent”—and that passive voice has some sort of grown-up, schoolteacher feel.
No. It doesn’t. Not even close. Tight, active writing is more impressive almost every time.
Of course, there are exceptions.
At the beginning of this article, I didn’t say passive voice was inherently bad for your writing. I said that passive voice, left unchecked, would damage readability and interest.
Sometimes you’ll actually want to use the passive voice. Sometimes it sounds more memorable and makes your writing pop. In fact, I used passive voice earlier when I said: If someone is doing something, double-check to see if it looks like the “something” was being done to them.
In this case, passive voice adds weight and impact to the sentence, and it makes the reader think (in a good way). You must use it intentionally, though, and you must test it against other variations of the same sentence.
So, that’s what you should know about eliminating passive voice from your writing. Keep it active and make sure your nouns and verbs are in the right order, and you’ll be off to the races.
Remember: You don’t have to avoid passive voice entirely—only about 99.5 percent of the time.