The feedback I received on my first submission to my friends in the Deadwood Writers group included many comments about my use of passive voice. Make that many, many, MANY comments. After I highlighted every instance of the verb ‘to be,’ my pages lit up in yellow. If I owned a color printer at the time, I could easily have used up an entire yellow ink cartridge. I had a problem – a passive-aggressive writing problem.
As my first step toward using an active voice instead of passive, I looked up the grammar rules. In its most basic form, passive sentence structure is Object-Verb-Subject: The bear was chased by Tom. Ho hum. Yawn. The sentence sounds like the action is over. Often the stories we write don’t happen in the present moment and this is where the passive voice snares the writer. We use past tense forms of the verb ‘to be’ to give the sense of things happening in the past. Active voice can do the same thing, but in a more compelling way.
Consider the active sentence structure of Subject-Verb-Object: Tom chased the bear. Even though events are still happening in the past, there’s more immediacy and drama. Comparing the two sentences, you can see the verb ‘chased’ already shows past tense. Adding the word ‘was,’ as in the passive sentence, is redundant and slows down the pace.
I got a lot of mileage toward improving my writing from this simple sentence conversion method. Here are three examples taken from that first submission:
Angela was bombarded with questions from the team.
The team bombarded Angela with questions.
She tried to get an explanation from Fred, but was brushed aside.
She tried to get an explanation from Fred, but he brushed her aside.
Cindy’s fresh coat of nail polish was ruined when she jumped from the surprise.
Cindy ruined her fresh coat of nail polish when she jumped from the surprise.
These fixes to sentences using simple past (-ed) versions of verbs were my first round of corrections and cut the amount of yellow highlights down by half. In the second round, I tackled the past progressive sentences that used the –ing version of verbs: Tom was chasing the bear. I revised these sentences with conversions to the simple past structure:
Gladys was now hurling packages of paper at him.
Gladys hurled packages of paper at him.
Tom was opening an email from Todd.
Tom opened an email from Todd.
The document was making its way to dozens of fax machines around the company and the city.
The document made its way to dozens of fax machines around the company and the city.
By this point, I cut the amount of yellow by three-quarters. The highlights remaining required less obvious, more thoughtful changes to achieve an active voice. In picking out examples for this blog post, I realized the common theme involved adjectives used in conjunction with a form of the verb ‘to be.’ One way to fix the problem is to get rid of the verb ‘to be’ and select another verb that is similar in meaning to the original verb/adjective combination.
Tom was a little concerned that someone did something to his cube.
Tom worried that someone did something to his cube.
Todd was openly vocal about the lack of work Tom did.
Todd complained openly about the lack of work Tom did.
Another fix is to move the adjective to a place in the sentence where the verb ‘to be’ is not necessary.
If his hard drive was damaged, it would set back the Granger project even further.
A damaged hard drive would set back the Granger project even further.
When these adjustments don’t seem to work, you may have to rethink and rewrite the sentence.
That thought was enough for Sylvia.
“No way!” thought Sylvia.
Tom opened the file and was not treated to erotic images.
Tom opened the file but did not find the erotic images he hoped to see.
Did I eliminate all use of passive voice? No. A few passive sentences are not going to make or break an entire piece. In fact, trying to eliminate all instances may bring you to a point of crafting sentences that sound pretentious, flowery, or verbose.
When assessing your use of passive voice, the problem is one of numbers. For example, ten instances of the word ‘was’ in a paragraph is passive-aggressive and clearly needs to be fixed. A page with ten occurrences is passive-assertive and still requires reduction efforts. Ten passive sentences scattered across ten pages is mildly passive. Though not likely to raise eyebrows, it’s worth taking a look to see if you can change some sentences from passive to active. If you have ten cases in a hundred pages, not only are you in control of your passive-aggressive writing tendencies, you’re also saving a lot of money on yellow printer cartridges.