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Deadly Don’t #1 - Passive Voice

Updated: Oct 16, 2023

What if I told you seven simple things you can do to improve your writing technique, to bump it to the level professionals strive for—and hit—every day?

The best piece of advice I could give you as a writer is to learn to self-edit your work, and these 7 Deadly Sins (of Writing) are my top picks for how to do that. With a little practice, you can train your eye and your writing instincts to do these seven things automatically. Before too long they’ll become second nature and you’ll wonder why you ever wrote any other way.

Deadly Don’t #1 ~ Passive Voice

Use Active Voice. Teach yourself to write in active voice rather than passive voice. Why? Because it makes the difference between strong writing and weak writing. If you need a more practical reason, here are two. Agents reject manuscripts loaded with passive voice. And readers find active voice engaging. Stories told in active voice carry the reader along with the action and involve the reader in the action.

The next time you pick up a good book or read an article in a leading magazine, stop and really LOOK at the way the sentences are constructed. Anybody can string words together, but learning to write in active voice is an acquired skill—you get good at it by doing it over and over again.

Let’s get down to business. Below are three examples of the same information rendered two different ways—in passive voice and active voice. If left untrained, most people write passively, but watch what happens when we turn that weak, limping sentence around:

PASSIVE: Two alleged drug dealers were chased by police deputies after a routine traffic stop today. One was apprehended and the other got away.

ACTIVE: Police deputies chased two alleged drug dealers today after a routine traffic stop. They apprehended one but the other got away.

In the first example, something was done to the drug dealers; in the second, the police do something to the drug dealers—chase them. The same goes for the secondary sentence describing the result of the chase.

PASSIVE: The reason she was late for work was a migraine headache that kept her up half the night, tossing and turning.

ACTIVE: A migraine headache that kept her up half the night tossing and turning made her late for work.

Again, look for a way to turn the action around so that one thing (in this case, a migraine headache) triggers something else (being late for work)—not the other way around. A writer friend said it this way: “The little trick I’ve learned for correcting passive voice is to switch subject and object. Alas, I don’t think schools teach sentence diagramming any longer.”

PASSIVE: John and Penelope were handed an eviction notice by their landlord.

ACTIVE: The landlord handed John and Penelope an eviction notice.

Do you see the distinction? By simply turning the action around—and getting rid of weak verbs such as was—you create more muscular sentences. Practice writing sentences like this and before long you’ll start to think in active voice.

I turned to [1] for more examples of passive- and active-voice sentences. The following is only a partial listing. You can find the rest on the website.

Sheila changed the flat tire. (active) The flat tire was changed by Sheila. (passive)

The crew paved the entire stretch of highway. (active) The entire stretch of highway was paved by the crew. (passive)

The critic wrote a scathing review. (active) A scathing review was written by the critic. (passive)

I will clean the house every Saturday. (active) The house will be cleaned by me every Saturday. (passive)

The staff is required to watch a safety video every year. (active) A safety video will be watched by the staff every year. (passive)

Dorothy faxed her application for a new job. (active) The application for a new job was faxed by Dorothy. (passive)

Tom painted the entire house. (active) The entire house was painted by Tom. (passive)

Mrs. Bleecker always answers the students’ questions. (active) The students’ questions are always answered by Mrs. Bleecker. (passive)

The choir really enjoys that piece. (active) That piece is really enjoyed by the choir. (passive)

The forest fire destroyed the whole suburb. (active)

The whole suburb was destroyed by the forest fire. (passive)

The two prime ministers are signing the treaty. (active) The treaty is being signed by the two prime ministers. (passive)

The cleaning crew vacuums and dusts the office every night. (active) Every night the office is vacuumed and dusted by the cleaning crew. (passive)

Larry generously donated money to the homeless shelter. (active) Money was generously donated to the homeless shelter by Larry. (passive)

No one responded to my sales ad. (active) My sales ad was not responded to by anyone. (passive)

The wedding planner is making all the reservations. (active) All the reservations will be made by the wedding planner. (passive)

Susan will bake two dozen cupcakes for the bake sale. (active) For the bake sale, two dozen cookies will be baked by Susan. (passive)

The science class viewed the comet. (active) The comet was viewed by the science class. (passive)

Reading through that list might feel like doing memorization drills, or practicing scales at the piano (anyone take piano lessons as a kid?)—but drills and scales have their purpose, and they do accomplish something. By the time you stagger away from the flash cards (or the piano), you’ll be that much more proficient.

Divine Do: Write in active voice for strong writing.

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