Tighten your writing with active voice

‘Write with an active voice’ is advice that is often doled out, but what does it mean? Even if you know this already, brushing up on the basics is never a bad thing.

Most verbs, or at least those that are related to something or someone (known as transitive verbs), have both an active and passive form. Both of these are correct ways of using the verb, but it's definitely beneficial to know the difference between the two and why active is almost always better.

Active voice

In an active sentence, the subject is doing the action.

Sarah killed the spider.

Sarah is the subject, and she did the killing.

Passive voice

To change to passive, the target of the action moves to the subject position of the sentence. So, in the above example, the spider is the target of the action (it is being killed), but in passive voice the spider would move to the front of the sentence:

The spider was killed by Sarah.

This is clunky because the spider isn’t actually doing anything, rather it is having something done to it.

How do you tell the difference?

Ask yourself, is the subject of your sentence doing anything? i.e. is it active? Or is it lazy and having the action done to it, i.e. is it passive?

More technically, a passive sentence is usually made up of a past participle and a form of the verb ‘be’, such as am, is, are, was, were, being and been.

Some examples of passive voice and how they are constructed:

subjectform of 'be'past participle
The spiderwaskilledby Sarah
Romeoislovedby Juliet
All the milkwasdrunkby whom?
The doorhas beenopened

And the active form of these examples would be:

  • Sarah killed the spider
  • Juliet loves Romeo
  • Who drank all the milk?
  • Someone opened the door

You’ll notice in the last example that we don’t know who opened the door, so in the active form the subject had to become ‘someone’. This leads us on to times when passive can be better suited.

Is passive voice wrong?

Passive sentences aren’t incorrect. Yet it’s usually not the best way to present your ideas because they can be unclear, vague or just plain awkward. Using the active voice is often a better choice.

Another reason for avoiding passive voice is that it often uses more words to say the same thing. In short fiction, brevity is essential so writing in active voice often results in a tighter and more engaging piece.

But the passive voice can be useful if you don’t know who did an action, like in the door example above. It can also add mystery or drama to a statement. For example, ‘The diamond has been stolen!’ is passive but is more impactful than the active ‘Someone has stolen the diamond’. That’s because the focus is placed on the diamond rather than the unknown ‘someone’.