Identifying and Fixing Passive Voice

I have seen a lot of Facebook questions and posts about passive voice that don’t quite explain it. Almost everyone who knows what passive voice is (or thinks they know what passive voice is) knows it’s bad, but they often have trouble identifying it. Given how prevalent the problem is, I thought I should address it.

A novel is, in some ways, like a movie. How you construct your sentences will determine where the camera is focused, who is on screen, and where the spotlight is shining. This is one of the reasons sentence structure is so vital to writing because if you don’t understand it or use it well you’re like a director whose camera crew is off the rails.

The easiest way I have to explain passive voice is it’s pointing the camera lens in the wrong direction. Now, I know there are times in artsy-fartsy movies where the kind of thing I’m going to describe happens. There are times in regular movies when it’s desirable. That also means passive voice isn’t always wrong. That said, it’s wrong more than it’s right, so don’t take that and run with it too far. Just because, “E said it’s okay sometimes” doesn’t mean to charge into the sunset with it.

Let’s start with an example of passive voice:

The door was closed by the man as he ran through it.

In this circumstance “the man” is supposed to be the primary sentence subject since he’s the one we are following, right? Your MC (Main Character) is running through a doorway and slamming it behind them as they try and escape the bad guys. Simple enough.

Unfortunately, with that sentence, that’s not the way it reads. It reads that the primary subject of the sentence is the door because it is written into the place of power. The camera lens is focusing on the door and watching it while the man (an afterthought) rushes past and closes it.

The reason this is called “passive voice” is because the thing being acted upon is the subject and isn’t doing anything. It’s not even reacting (which is a key part of why this is passive voice).

So how do we fix it? The fix is simple. Have the camera follow the action like any good director:

The man closed the door as he ran through it.

See the difference? The camera is moving, following the subject of the sentence. The subject of the sentence is acting, and we aren’t stuck in limbo staring at the door while action goes on around us. It would be like watching Avengers from the POV of one of the buildings in New York. Occasionally neat things would happen around you, but you’re stuck facing one direction with limited view and no action.

So how do we identify passive voice?

  • One thing you will also notice in the second sentence is I have removed the “to be” verb (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been). While “to be” verbs aren’t always passive, it’s a good idea to eliminate as many of them as possible in your writing. However, if you see a lot of “to be” verbs in your writing you might discover you have a fair amount of passive construction in there, too.
  • Next, check your subjects. Passive voice is almost always going to  have two or more subjects, so if your sentence has only one subject (e.g. The door was closed.) you are probably not in passive territory. That doesn’t make all single-subject sentences perfect, but they probably aren’t going to be “passive voice” in the technical definition.
  • If your sentence has two or more subjects, is the “camera” focused on the one doing the acting? If they are both acting then the sentence can’t be passive because passive voice requires at least one of the subjects to be doing nothing. If I were to write: “The door swung closed after him,” that is not passive. The door is swinging. It is active.

If those three checks do not hit paydirt on your sentence, it is not passive, no matter what the grammar check on your word processor or editing software says. That’s actually one of the major problems with editing software: it doesn’t realize all “to be” verbs aren’t passive. While I can (and will) do a post later about why “to be” verbs aren’t your friends, they aren’t passive by definition.

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