Many writers are aware of passive writing but struggle to identify it and remove it from their work.
The Difference Between Active and Passive Writing
In an active sentence, the subject performs an action and an object receives it.
The angry man punched the brown wall.
In passive writing, the sentence is structured like this.
The brown wall was punched by the angry man.
Identifying the Passive Voice
There are three elements that signify passive writing:
- A past tense form of the verb always appears in the passive voice – shouted, jumped
- A form of the verb to be – am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been
- The word, by – The fruit tart was thrown at the clown by the monkey
What is the Problem With Passive Writing
Passive writing results in a vague style of writing that loses impact and focus. Sentences tend to be long winded and difficult to follow.
There were flames in the window so the passerby raised the alarm.
How Does the Active Voice Sound
Active sentences are strong, clear, easy to understand and catch the reader’s attention. They flow well and are more concise than passive sentences.
The passerby raised the alarm as there were flames in the window.
What About Words Ending With “ing”
English is full of words ending “ing” and in most circumstances, these are acceptable. The problem arises when the sentence is vague and unspecific. This is often because it is missing a clear subject.
Cleaning out the cage was harder than expected.
This can be rephrased to be specific and state who was cleaning the cage.
The boy had trouble cleaning out the cage.
What Other Problems are Caused by Passive Writing
Passive writing allows the writer to leave out the subject. This happens when a “by” phrase is not included. The first two examples are passive and the third is active.
- The mouse was chased from its hole
- The mouse was chased from its hole by the cat
- The cat chased the mouse from its hole
Is it ever Right to Use the Passive Voice
It is acceptable to use a passive sentence when the focus is on the object not the subject
The cakes that had burned in the oven were thrown away.
If this is written as an active sentence, it sounds wrong.
The oven burned the cakes that were thrown away.
With practice, it is easy to spot passive writing and rephrase it into active sentences. Active writing is strong and punchy and more likely to hold a reader’s attention as well as finding favor with editors.