Are You Writing in Passive Voice? 3 Ways to Know


“Mistakes were made.” Perhaps my all-time favorite politician quote, made famous by good ol’ Richard Nixon.

Are you writing in passive voice?

Mistakes were made all right. Mistake number one, Nixon boy: DON’T COMMUNICATE IN PASSIVE VOICE.

Passive voice is boring. It’s what we reporters call “politician talk.” It can avoid responsibility, it will hypnotize readers to sleep, and it confuses people. The exact opposite is active voice. Thrilling! Stimulating! Electrifying! Active voice is what keeps your readers desperate for more.

So, how do you know if you’re writing in the dreaded passive voice? Here are three ways to decipher, and then switch it around to active excitement:

1.       You reader doesn’t know who did the task. “Mistakes were made.” By whom? Who made the mistakes?

Passive Voice: “Mistakes were made.”

Active Voice: “My administration made mistakes.”

2.       Your verb is preceded by “was” or “were,” as examples. When you write with this sentence structure, you lose the sense of immediate action in your description.

Passive voice: “He was driving through the brush.”

Active voice: “He drove through the brush.” 

3.       Your masterpiece sounds like a politician trying to get off the hook. Just read the examples:

Passive voice: “It has been an honor to serve in this role at Rock Star Media.* Employees should be recognized for the hard work they have accomplished.” (*I made up this company to use as an example)

Active voice: “I am honored to serve in this role at Rock Star Media. Managers and leaders should recognize their employees for the hard work they accomplish every day.” 

Are you beginning to see the difference?

Now, here’s where you can really get your teeth grinding. Use stronger verbs, after switching from passive to active. Take my “driving” example from above:

Passive: “He was driving through the brush.”

Active: “He drove through the brush.”

Active with a better verb: “He sliced through the brush, the car his almighty sword.”

Now, aren’t your toes beginning to tingle? I know we’re not all writing thrilling action movies or novels. I work in a corporate environment. I get it. But, you can still make your stories more interesting by using active voice.

Ask yourself, are you ALWAYS pushing to write in this form? Are your words jumping off the page? They should be. And if they’re not, challenge yourself. You have more work to do.

15 thoughts on “Are You Writing in Passive Voice? 3 Ways to Know

  1. Terrific post, Shari. Concrete examples/articles like this are always so helpful and can be included in an ‘editing notebook’ for novelists who, at the end of their first drafts, can go back and comb through the story with all their ‘tip sheets’ in hand. This is a great reminder from one journalist to another and will be so helpful in editing out the pesky passive voice in my fiction. Your article will go in my notebook for sure, as a guide. . Appreciate the wonderful insight.

    1. Thank you Melissa! I am HONORED that I am making it into your ‘editing notebook.’ I’d never heard of that idea, myself. That is such a great concept. Thank you for sharing that suggestion. I think I will now begin my own. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by and also offering such great insight!

  2. Great post! I didn’t realize how passive I was writing until I started to pay attention to every sentence I wrote. It’s amazing how just changing a few words makes all the difference.

  3. I am very guilty of writing in passive voice. In everything I try to post, the editor function finds 3 or 4 or more of these sneaky little devils. Sometimes I change the infractions, but more often I leave them, partly because I’m not always sure of correct sentence structure. Frankly my dear, I suck at english. And to cover it up I claim “poetic license”. Your examples are very helpful. Thanks! Also at the end of your blog entry, there are 2 wordpress generated examples on this same subject, one titled, “Don’t be afraid of the passive voice. This writer, Nancy Pear, Nancypearbooks.wordpress.com, used examples of the effective use of passive voice in 2 speeches given by the late Senator Robert Byrd. In these examples Nancy points out how the passive voice, much more eloquently than active voice, communicated his concerns about the Iraq war. Through his words I realized how deeply he felt that only harm would come to the country through this war action.
    Thanks for your help.
    ken
    P.S I’m sure my use of passive voice is child’s play compared to the accomplished voice of Senator Byrd.

  4. Ugh. I just think in passive voice. This is a big problem for me. Almost every sentence has to be revised. 😦 I trust it’ll get better eventually.

    This post helps a great deal. You’ve given examples that I can hang on to.

    (As I look back over this comment, I’m rolling my eyes. I’ve got a long way to go.)

    1. Look on the bright side! Self-awareness is the first step. When I started my career on the newspaper, writing in passive voice was my biggest flaw. But I had an editor who drilled it into my head, “Active voice! Active voice!” Now, I actually had trouble writing passive sentences to use as examples! Keep practicing. It gets easier the more you do it.

      I’m really glad my examples helped! Examples were the only ways I learned, too. You’re such a great writer, V.V. I think you write in active more than you know. 😉

  5. I am guilty, guilty, guilty of the passive voice syndrome. Oddly enough I began to note this particular little issue as I entered into the internet social arena which I am still fairly new at. I find it a means to “calm down” or “smooth” over my sincere considerations on a subject. Sort of silly in some ways but it might be a weak attempt at being polite in writing yet in person I don’t seem to suffer my voice!

    I find my writings now a days filled with the an opening that follows, “Some people…”.

    I know when I am doing it and when I decide to switch the tone around I think it is because I would be confident to own my opinion, or could care less to debate the opinion. As well, I sometimes pull out the passive voice in an effort to “slip” one in!

    Great tip and reminder to take on a more active approach to not only our writings but our selves!

    Thanks!

    1. I am so glad you found this helpful! And also, thank you for subscribing to my blog. 🙂 I find it so easy to switch the voice around into passive, with the intent of trying to seem polite. And don’t get me wrong: sometimes, that IS the best approach, especially in the corporate world. But I’ve learned when it comes to writing content or stories that people will read for fun, or to learn from, active is the way to go. It keeps the story moving!

      Thanks for stopping by, nice to meet you, and stay in touch!
      Shari

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