How to Fix Passive Voice

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Passive voice image 1Acquisition editors have eagle-eyes for both talent and for amateurs.

They’re looking for stuff to buy and publish, and most are so overwhelmed with submissions, they’ve learned to quickly spot anything that allows them to set your piece aside.

Sound cruel? They don’t want reject your writing. But because of their work loads (and their goal—finding something they know will sell), once they see the mark of a novice, they’re on to the next manuscript.

Even experienced writers see their work land in the reject pile if they allow passive voice to creep in.

Give your manuscript a fighting chance and learn how to fix passive voice before you submit.

Defining Passive Voice

So, what is it?

I could tell you about subjects and objects and verbs and which is acting vs. being acted upon,  avoiding adverbs, and all that. But unless you excelled at diagramming sentences in school, that’s going to sound like gibberish.

The easiest way to spot passive voice is to look for state-of-being verbs and often the word by.

And the best way I know to teach this is by example.

Examples:

Passive: The party was planned by Jill.

Active: Jill planned the party.

Passive: The wedding cake was created by Ben.
Active: Ben created the wedding cake.

Passive: The Little League team was given trophies by the coaches.
Active: The coaches gave the Little League team trophies.

Passive: A good time was had by all.
Active: Everybody had a good time.

Avoid passive voice to increase your chances of getting more than five minutes of an editor’s time.

Active Voice Strengthens Your Prose

Avoiding passive voice will set you apart from much of your competition, but even better, it will give your writing a distinct ring of clarity.

Scour your work-in-progress for passive voice, root it out, replace it with active, and see how much more powerfully it reads.

That’s the kind of writing that gets more of an editor’s time.

Has this helped clarify the problem of passive voice? Do you still have questions for me or tips for others on how you’d dealt with this? Tell me in the comments.

Related Posts:

Showing vs. Telling: What You Need to Know

How to Write Dialogue That Works

How to Write a Book: Everything You Need to Know in 20 Steps

  • Glenda

    Still clarifying. Because I like the literary gems of yester-yore, this still plagues me. (NOT plagues me still, right?) :) Another great post, thanks!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Were those literary gems passive?

      • Glenda

        Hmmm. Great question. So, maybe passive differs from writtenese? I’m thinking specifically of Lord of the Rings: “The world has changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost.”

  • Karen Crider

    In the active voice the subject of the sentence performs the action of the verb. In the passive voice the action is performed upon the subject.This can be a real pain in the pencil. I fight it. It’s like an infection. Once you begin using the passive voice, your writing loses its shine. It becomes lethargic, and lays around smelly on the page. I try to stay away from the to be verbs, is , are, were, has, had, and have. But find them convenient,and fast on the keyboard. I strive for concrete nouns and verbs when I write. Often, I hear a has, had or have pounding on the door of my script, and once in awhile, a was, were, or has, slips in without notice They master subtle and sneaky and untrustworthy. So guard the paragraphs of your manuscript, and beware the dreaded passiveness of the passive verb.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      That’s why I didn’t try to explain it in grammar-speak, Karen. Good job.

      You did, however, mean to say ‘lies around,’ right? :)

  • Denise B. Holbrook

    Jerry, the whole article was read by me and understood by me. It was helpful and appreciated. (Just kidding! Loved your tips. Going back to my manuscript to root out some passive pests. Thank you.)

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Laughing aloud, Denise!

    • Cassandra Malone

      You are not alone.

  • Mary Derksen

    Someone made me aware of this, so I have been avoiding it. So good to get your great suggestions. Thanks.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thank you, Mary.

  • For any who want an explanation complete with verbs and subjects and such, I’ve got a post that will help–hopefully accessible even to those who didn’t excel in sentence diagramming. ;-)

    https://rewriterewordrework.wordpress.com/2015/02/28/replacing-the-passive/

    • Glenda

      Thanks, Rebecca. Super-helpful! :)

    • Cassandra Malone

      Thank you. I will use this information.

  • Cathryn Swallia

    Just another weapon for my editing arsenal. The more I learn, the easier it is to look at my own work with a more impartial eye.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Bingo, Cathryn!

  • Lawrence Hebb

    Jerry.
    Great post. One thing I try is if my character is ‘doing’ something, then it just doesn’t sound right in the passive voice! Also using the active voice keeps my ‘word count’ down which keeps me happy, my way of thinking is If there’s a shorter way of saying something that’s probably the ‘active voice’ would that be right?

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      It sure is, Lawrence. Good thinking.

  • Gina Castell

    This information has been a timely reminder for me. I find that while writing, I’m tempted to have a passive voice. Consequently, I find myself self-correcingt this problem often. Changing this habit requires learning to put verbs in the correct order, and making sure the action is not performed upon the subject. Hopefully, it will become more of a habit to have a direct voice than a passive one. Funny, in real life I’m not passive at all. lol Thanks again, Gina

    • Ha! I hear you, Gina. That’s what I call slipping into the language of written-ese, when we sound different on the page than we are in real life.

  • April

    The way I learned it – if you can add “by zombies” to the end of a sentence, it’s passive. It’s kind of a fun way to hunt for passive voice.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Ha! I wonder why zombies? Could be turkeys, llama, moose, jocks, ballerinas… :)

      Whatever works.

  • Kat Connolly

    Ha! I just experienced this problem while writing an article for a client this week. The SEO program I use analyzes the content and points out passive voice sentences. I had too many and I really didn’t understand why. With this article, I now know why. God is right on time yet again. Thanks, Jerry.

  • Jamie Jenkins

    Thanks for using the examples to explain this! I always did think sentences like the ones above sounded bad, but I never really knew why. I never learned how to diagram sentences in school. Now I know why they sound bad. I guess I need to brush up on my grammar. :) I don’t see much of passive voice in my writing because I usually catch it right away (it just sounds too bad to keep in there). I’ll continue to keep an eye out for it, though, because I know if I become lazy with my editing, I’ll overlook something. Those kinds of sentences sound like an off-key instrument…they just make me want to cringe when I hear them.

  • This is the best, thank you!

  • Lynn Hobbs

    Have heard tips about not using passive voice but never with examples I can identify with! Thanks for making this issue clear!

  • Ellen Andersen

    Is there any time when a passive voice is better than an active one?

    • I would concede that there are times when it is less detrimental, Ellen. Some passive construction can work if deftly rendered to the point where what it evokes takes your focus off the wording. For instance, one commenter cited the following–which, in a strict sense–has some passive elements (stte-of-being verbs), and yet it works: From ‘The Lord of the Rings’: “The world has changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost.”

  • Joanna Lynn

    Great information! I hadn’t thought about passive voice in my writing. I’m not sure I use it much, but it’s important if it will get an editor to toss the work.

  • Linda Jewell

    Thanks for the handy tip. I added “by” (when used to construct passive voice) to my List of Usual Suspects to Check during Rewriting. Using the search function, I found one such “by” in a current short story: “He stopped, like he was embarrassed by his own enthusiasm.” I changed it to: “He stopped as if his enthusiasm embarrassed him.” Then I remembered your show-don’t-tell advice and changed it to: “He stopped, cheeks flushed.” ☺

  • Warren Brooks

    Thanks so much Jerry, this is great advice. I am working through a current work in progress manuscript, weeding out the passive voice and replacing it with the active. As a result, the sentences are so much more stronger and it does read more powerfully.

  • Passive voice goes beyond past tense “was.” We had. We had been. We thought about. You can use passive verb tenses in clauses, but never your primary verb. This is okay, “We’d been planning for graduation when the truck smashed into Jerry’s door and launched us into the ravine.” This is not, “The truck had been going too fast. The driver couldn’t have stopped when he ran into us on our way to school.”

    I believe in diagramming sentences if you’re not sure. Cut out the clauses and identify the sentence’s true subject and verb. If it reads “subject was, had, had been, could have…” you’re in passive voice. Often your sentence drags because you chose the wrong subject. Scrap the sentence, identify the real subject and what it “did.” (e.g. changing “Bob’s mind was on…” to “Bob thought,” or even “Bob hit John when the loudmouth broke his chain of thought.”