How To Avoid Passive Voice

A fantastic time was had by everyone.

Or we all had a fantastic time.

Passive voice and active voice. Every professional writer will advise you to learn how to avoid the passive voice as much as possible.

Unless you enjoy putting your readers to sleep (or you want them to stop reading your work). If you want to improve your writing, stop using passive voice. But is it so easy to do? And should you really always avoid it?

Let’s talk about some great tips for writing better (while avoiding passive sentences).

What Is Passive Voice? 

Some people are a little confused about what passive voice is.

As Roy Peter Clark explains, “voice defines the relationship between subject and verb—who does what.” Active or passive voice is about sentence structure (not conjugation).

In active voice, the subject starts the sentence, for example, “We are buying eggs at the store.” 

In passive voice, you start the sentence with the object (eggs in the sentence above). It makes the sentence less interesting and impersonal. Let’s be honest…more boring too.

Eggs were bought at the store by us.

What a snorefest.

You are putting more distance between your readers and your subject (in your sentences). You’re making it harder for them to be curious about what will happen next. They may stop reading your article out of disinterest.

There may be reasons and moments to use the passive voice, but it’s not the tool you need to keep your readers’ eyes glued to your writing.

Passive Voice vs. Active Voice

The active voice makes your writing more direct and fills it with more energy. It compels you to read on because it is active, it is moving the story forward.

In contrast to the passive voice, you are using active voice if the subject of your sentence acts on the object. Abraham attended the party. Rashida hits the ball.

These sentences are direct, clear, and straight to the point. Reading these sentences is easy. Someone did or is doing something. 

If we wrote these sentences using the passive voice, the objects would receive the action: events would happen to the objects.

The ball was hit by Janet. The party was attended by Abraham. 

The subjects and objects switch places. Not only does it make your sentences longer, it also draws your attention to the one part of the sentence that does nothing (the object).

In the sentences above, Janet and Abraham become less important with this sentence structure.

Keep it clear; keep it active.

Why We Should Avoid Using Passive Voice 

Passive voice isn’t necessarily incorrect.

For instance, if you want to call attention to the object of the action (maybe because they are a victim), then yes, passive voice may be a good idea. Think of the passive voice as a tool to use occasionally. 

But on the whole, you should avoid passive voice for the following reasons:

It Is More Awkward Than Active Voice

As you saw from the example, we used above, using passive voice will make sentences more awkward and clunkier than they need to be. They could be snappy sentences, where somebody does something. Instead, we have to work at understanding them.

It creates distance between the subject and the object and can cause confusion.

If you use the passive voice, your sentences will be harder to read. Your readers will take longer to read your work, and they will be likely click away to something more interesting.

It Doesn’t Provide Clarity

When you create such a distance between the subject and the object, you can confuse the meaning of the sentence.

You do this in two ways. 

First, the passive voice will make the meaning of the sentence harder to understand. Adding extra words and taking a longer time to get to the meaning of your sentence leaves more room for misunderstanding. 

For instance, the very famous writer George Orwell, said that politicians will often use the passive voice to avoid responsibility: ‘The report has been studied, and it must now be admitted that mistakes were made,’ Roy Peter Clark quotes him as saying.

They use the passive voice to avoid saying who did what.

You don’t know who read the report, who made the mistakes, and who admits the mistakes were made. For your own writing, the example above shows how passive voice can cause miscommunication and hide the subject.

Second, the passive voice can create misplaced modifiers.

A misplaced modifier occurs when a writer places a word or phrase too far from the word or phrase it is modifying. It creates confusion and causes readers to believe the writer is modifying the wrong word or phrase.

Compare the following:

While walking to work, Mauricio saw a bird fly into a window. Using the active voice, it is clear who sees what happens and when.

While walking to work, a bird was seen flying into a window by Mauricio. In this construction, the sentence reads as if the bird flew into the window while it was walking to work. And Mauricio saw all this happen.

If you want to communicate clearly, use the active voice. 

It’s Bad For SEO

One of the ways Google and other search engines rank content is by their quality, and readability contributes a great deal to this. Algorithms will prioritize content that is easy to read and therefore ranks it higher.

Passive sentences are harder to read than active ones, so writing filled with passive voice won’t be ranked well by search engines. 

There’s a further effect, too.

Search engine algorithms consider how much time you spend on a site and whether a user will move between pages on a website. If your content is good (easier to do using active voice), then your readers will click on more of your content and move between more of your pages.

Good writing will improve your rankings in search engines. 

It Can Focus on the Event and its Results

In the passive voice, events happen, but the people or things that cause the events can be removed from the sentence easily.

“Ten people were shot at the concert.”

People often criticize news headline writers for this. A victim will have died at the hands of a government or murderer, and their headline reads, “People die in clashes.”

In reality, somebody killed them, yet the passive voice robs them of the truth. 

Active Alternatives To Passive Sentences 

Having examples of active and passive sentences in mind can help us when we are trying to review our work. Here are some examples for you:

Passive: The picture was painted by Mahela.

Active: Mahela painted the picture.

Passive: The guitar was being played by Josie.

Active: Josie was playing the guitar.

Passive: The car was driven into the lake by Dave.

Active: Dave drove the car into the lake.

Passive: Julie was given the prize by the league. 

Active: The league gave Julie the prize.

How To Avoid Passive Voice 

When you understand how passive and active voice work, improving your writing will be much easier. With these lessons and tools in mind, we can get down to the real business of making your writing more active and engaging.

Ultimately, you need to practice writing in the active voice to improve. When you are writing, take the time to review your work carefully.

Check for passive voice in your work.

Depending on what you are writing about, make a conscious effort to consider who is doing what, so that you construct a sentence in the active voice.

Use the this formula: subject + verb + optional object. 

Routinely review your work for passive constructions. Scan quickly multiple times or read it aloud to yourself. Normally when you hear your own words, you notice what you need to change more easily.

Review your sentences so that you are sure they are in the active voice. (Unless you have consciously used it in the way we described earlier.) Consider the context and whether the meaning changes if you rewrite it in active voice.

Active voice can clarify those clunky sentences you are unsure about. 

In addition to extra practice and reviews, use a grammar check tool like Grammarly. Research the best one to use and check out their settings. Some require you to upgrade to access certain settings.

Active Voice is One Way to Improve Your Writing 

Trying to improve your writing can feel daunting. There is no one magic formula for everyone, but there are devices you can use to give your writing the best chance to shine.

Writing in the active voice is one such device. You will energize your writing and give your sentences greater meaning and clarity. 

The key is to start practicing as soon as you can.

So, get to it and go review one of your past projects. Did you find any passive voice in it?
Practice rewriting it. Or practice on your current work.

We’d love to hear what you’re writing about right now. What’s slowing you down in your writing practice now?

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