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Passive Voice—Good or Bad?

by Nann Dunne 

Many books on writing advise authors to use active voice rather than passive voice, but I consider that a simplistic rule. True, today's readers of newspapers, magazines, and "how-to" and business books want hard-hitting information, and active voice provides a better tool for those uses. When writing fiction, however, passive voice can serve a useful purpose in setting various moods: relaxing, mysterious, or sultry, for instance; or for understated shock value.

But if you have no need to use passive voice to set a mood, by all means, choose active voice.

Notice the active verbs in the following paragraph.

Sheila stared at Joe for a long minute. He looked strange, but she couldn't figure out why. Had his face changed? He glanced in her direction, forcing her to turn away.

Let us suspend any other thoughts about editing and substitute passive verbs to see the difference:

Sheila had been staring at Joe for a long minute. There was something strange about him, but she wasn't able to figure out what. Was his face different? When she saw he was looking back at her, she was forced to turn away.

Can you tell the first example has a stronger punch? Active verbs make our sentences more powerful. Active voice also tightens our writing, because it eliminates the need for the extra words that passive voice uses. Perhaps a few familiar examples will emphasize this. See if you can guess the original sentence and take note of the difference in strength—and length.


It is a good idea to deny temptation.
Uncle Sam is asking you to join.
There will be rewards if you are patient.
Here are ways to make friends and be influential.
There are ideas that make money if you are willing to use your head.
It is necessary to choose your path or be ignored.
I am ordering you to put your hands up.
It is time to eat.
It might be treacherous, but we will be going ahead quickly.
There is a dangerous animal nearby.


Just Say No.
Uncle Sam Wants You.
Good things come to those who wait.
How to Win Friends and Influence People
Think and Grow Rich
Lead, follow, or get out of the way.
Reach for the sky.
Come and get it.
Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!
Beware the dog.

Do you get the idea? Take a page or two of your story, and make a list of the verbs you've used. Try to think of something stronger, more specific, or more colorful. This advice pertains to all the verbs, but especially to the passive ones. You're going to change those to strong active verbs where possible, right? If you find that you've improved at least half of your verbs, then I suggest you apply the exercise to the whole manuscript. Remember, unless you are trying to set a passive mood, you want to keep your readers anxious to turn the next page, not lull them to sleep.

—Nann Dunne
© Nann Dunne, 2003

Excerpted from Nann Dunne's Fiction-Editing Handbook (a work in progress).

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