To Be or To Do: The Oscars, Writing, and Active v. Passive Voice

Last Sunday, I wrote about how vital conflict is to story, and how lack of conflict is usually the reason a novel lags, if it does, or a reader loses interest.

Today, let’s talk about keeping your writing interesting on a line-by-line basis. One of the best ways to do that is to use active rather than passive voice.

Here’s a quick comparison:

“An evaluation of pluses and minuses was made.”

Puts you to sleep, right? Even though it’s only eight words. That’s passive voice.

“We weighed the pluses and minuses.”

That’s active voice, and it sounds a lot more interesting.

Why is active voice more engaging?

The second sentence, written in active voice, is stronger and more engaging. Here are a few reasons why:

  • People:

Most readers would rather read about people than abstract concepts like “an evaluation.” Even in types of fiction that are about new concepts or advances in technology or dystopian societies, readers choose fiction rather than non-fiction because they want to immerse themselves in stories about people, not simply about a new machine, an evil empire, or a medical advance.

That’s why active voice is stronger than passive–it keeps the focus on the actor, making it more personal. If you won an award or a race, don’t you want people to know you won it? And be excited about it?

“I won the race” sounds a lot more exciting than “A race was won” or even “A race was won by me.”

  • Action:

We like to read about people doing something, not sitting there. “An evaluation was made” calls to mind a bunch of businessmen in gray suits boring each other to death around a conference table. I’ve attended that type of meeting many times and have no desire to sit in on a fictional one.

“We weighed the pluses and minuses” isn’t exactly “We saved the world from killer cyborgs,” but it sounds like these people are doing something, not merely sitting. Waving their arms as they argue, maybe, or drawing circles and arrows on white boards, or pulling out a scale. Something.

  • Words (fewer of them):

Active voice also helps you get rid of words you don’t need, so it shortens sentences and makes them easier to read and understand.

The second sentence above is 6 words instead of 8, so it’s three-quarters the length of the first. That doesn’t seem like much of a difference when you look at one sentence, but it’s the difference between an 80,000-word novel and a 60,000-word novel. 

The 60,000 word novel would move faster and provide a more exciting reader experience. Or you could use the extra 20,000 words to expand your plot, deepen your characters, or add a sub-plot.

When should you use passive voice?

There are times, however, when using passive voice is better.

  • Sometimes you want to be anonymous

When the wrong film was announced as the winner for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Award ceremony, PricewaterhouseCoopers took responsibility, but used a bit of passive voice, which de-emphasized who made the error:

“We deeply regret the mistakes that were made during the presentation….”

President Ronald Reagan also famously used “mistakes were made” when talking about his role in the Iran-Contra affair.

Who made the mistakes? Perhaps no one will focus on that. Just ignore the man behind the curtain….

  • You don’t know who did what

To be fair, PwC may have used the “mistakes were made” type of language in its initial statement out of uncertainty over who specifically caused the mix up. (And it did say “We regret,” which is active voice. Still, you can regret something happened that you had nothing to do with, so we’re back to the passive “mistakes were made” phrasing.)

PwC’s motives aside, passive voice works well when you don’t know who performed an action: “A tower had been built in the village” might be the only way you can frame a sentence if you don’t know who built the tower.

  • You want to emphasize the object of the sentence

Sometimes the object of the sentence is the point. Above I said “When the wrong film was announced…” to make “wrong film” the focus of the sentence. It didn’t matter to me who made the announcement.

Similarly, if you and your friend love a certain dessert, you might say, “Flourless chocolate cake with pineapple sorbet will be served at nine.”

If you’re me, you’re showing up at nine regardless who is serving the cake.

  • You’re not sure which pronoun to use

Sometimes writers use passive voice rather than “he” or “she” if they don’t know the gender of the person involved:

“The store was robbed last night.”

You can often refashion the sentence to make it more active, though:

“A thief robbed the store last night.”

Spotting passive voice

The grammar check in whatever word processor you use may highlight passive voice for you. I’ve heard good things about the site Grammarly, too, though I haven’t used it myself.

You can also use the Find function (or your own eyes) to search for “to be” words: was, were, is, are. The word “by” also often signals passive voice (think “was followed by” or “was loved by” or “was won by”).

The rule of thumb

A good rule is to phrase your sentences in active voice unless you have a strong reason to do otherwise. Try it with a chapter of your latest novel or your next email or article and see how much more compelling your writing becomes.

Let me know how it goes!

Until Friday–


L. M. Lilly



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