Are You Writing in Passive Voice? 3 Ways to Know


This post is part of the Countdown Series on ShariLopatin.com, re-publishing my top “writing tips” blog posts from the past five years. The Countdown Series will culminate in a few weeks with the announcement of my business’ (Shari’s Ink) new arm, which will benefit other WRITERS!

Originally published Dec. 20, 2010

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

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.  Your 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.

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Shari Lopatin is a professional writer, editor, journalist, and social media manager with a decade of experience in media and communications. She lives in Phoenix, Ariz. and blogs about finding a literary agent, writing tips, social media or tech trends, and sometimes current events. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter!

One thought on “Are You Writing in Passive Voice? 3 Ways to Know

  1. When I revise, I always look closely to ‘was’, ‘were’, ‘had been’ and the like. Sometimes I can’t get rid of them, but most of times I definitelly can. It’s always quite satisfying when I can cross them out of my story 😉

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