Takeaway Tips for Using Active & Passive Voice

When writing and editing your manuscript, you'll be faced with a multitude of stylistic choices. One that can greatly impact the quality of your writing is voice.

There are two types of voice, both of which will naturally occur in your writing. They are:

  1. Active
  2. Passive

The active voice is the most common of the two voices; however, in the right hands, the passive voice is an equally powerful tool. It often occurs naturally, but can also be applied to provide structural variety in your writing.

This simple guide will help you to solidify your understanding of voice and allow you to use both with confidence and sophistication when writing your manuscript!

The Active Voice

In an active sentence, the subject commits an action which affects an object:

Lawrence closed the window.

In this sentence, Lawrence (the subject of the statement) commits a direct action upon the window (the object).

Here's another example:

The dog chased the man down the street, barking as it pursued its target.

Here, the main subject is the dog. The dog commits an action (indicated by the verb 'chased') directly upon the man.

The Passive Voice

In a passive statement, the object and the subject switch places. The subject becomes passive in its actions: 

The window was closed by Lawrence. 
The man was chased by the dog.

In the above sentences, Lawrence and the dog are no longer the active parties. The statements recount an event without any action being directly made by either subject.

Now that we've covered the basics, let's make things a little more complex!

There are times when the passive voice will provide a more elegant version of a sentence:

Active: Two documents that Dickens had signed at the time of the purchase prove the author's ownership.

This sentence is wordy and awkward to read. When writing, an author aims to avoid any 'speed bumps' in the text, as they distract the reader from the content and make the writing less enjoyable to read.

Passive: Two documents, signed by Dickens at the time of the purchase, prove the author's ownership.

This sentence, though it is interrupted by commas, is much more comfortable to read and sounds more confident in tone.

The passive voice can also have the opposite effect, however:

The bus was taken by the students on their way to school. It was cold, and many hats were worn by them. Several books were opened to study from, as exams were being held this week.

As you can see from this example, it does not always make sense to use the passive voice! It can seem pointlessly indirect, and often makes a sentence much longer and more difficult to understand.

Often the active and passive voices can be combined in a single sentence to great effect:

The students took the bus to school. It was cold, and many of them were wearing hats. Several had books open to study from, as exams were being held this week.

Oftentimes, your use of voice will be correct without conscious effort. Other times, it's handy to know what your options are. Now you can be confident in the difference between active and passive voice, and more importantly, feel equipped with the tools to apply them to your publication!

Written by Kate Juniper
Edited by Brian Cliffen
Image c/o Shutterstock