by Nann Dunne
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
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
There will be rewards if you are patient.
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
It is time to eat.
It might be treacherous, but we
will be going ahead quickly.
There is a dangerous animal
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, 2003