Sketchy Writing Advice: how to change passive voice into active voice

Disclaimer: the following writing advice is base on the author’s personal experience of writing and does not represent any hard or fast rules. Your mileage may vary.

The plight of the passive voice writer.

You just got back from your writer’s group meeting. Or you just got feedback from your critique partner. They pointed out some passages in your piece that were weak. They described those passages as ‘passive’ and said that you needed to change them to ‘active voice.’ There was something in there about adverbs and ‘bewasbeeniswereamandare,’ but they said it too fast for you to understand. They might have told you to use the find function in Word to search for all the ‘being verbs’ and change them to active verbs. You nodded and said, “Sure, okay.”

But inside you were thinking, how?

Certainly, you may already know about being verbs and adverbs. Maybe you’ve heard about this enough already. If you have, you can skip down to the advice.

But in case you haven’t heard of being verbs, adverbs and action verbs, here’s a quick breakdown:

Being verbs: A ThoughtCo.com article states that “a verb that does not show action instead indicates a state of being. …[I]n English most being verbs are forms of to be (am, are, is, was, were, will be, being, been, etc.).”

Adverbs: Any word that ends in -ly (quickly, oily, chilly, moodily, etc.).

Action verbs: Any verb not one of the two above (run, slam, kiss, hold, breathe, help, etc.).

What’s the big deal?

Why does it matter if you write in passive voice? While passive voice has its place in prose, most of the time, you will hold a reader’s attention better with active voice. Some examples:

Passive voice: He was walking quickly along the dark alley. His skin was chilly from the cold.

Active voice: He hurried down the dark alley. Cold air chilled his skin.

Note the differences. The first example checks a few boxes – describes what the character does, shows that he feels cold. (Critiquers who know their stuff always tell you to show, show, SHOW! They’re not wrong.) Passive voice just doesn’t bring you into the story; it brings you to the story. Here it is. This is what happened.

The second example entices the reader. He didn’t just walk quickly, he hurried. You can see in your mind’s eye what that looks like, what it means. Something happened. The cold didn’t just make his skin chilly, it chilled. You know how that feels. Active voice doesn’t just bring you to the story; it dunks your head beneath the icy waters of the story. You’re here. You’re in it.

A quick note.

Writing your rough draft in passive voice is not the shameful act some feedback would have you think. Using being verbs and -ly adverbs helps you get your thoughts down on the page. Those first thoughts act as a road map to tell later you, editor you, what you meant by this. Just make sure you edit out your passive voice before you take new pieces to your next writing group meeting.

What I did.

In the above example of passive voice, I found the being verbs (was in both instances) and the adverbs (quickly and chilly). For the first sentence, I looked at quickly and let it tell me what it wanted to show. A number of active verbs would have worked here (stormed, rushed, thundered, raced, even ran or trotted), but I picked hurried because that’s what walking quickly makes me think about. Your choices depend on your context, what’s happening around your action (is he angry, frightened, speeding, or just a little late?).

For the second sentence in the passive voice example, I let the adverb become the action verb. Adverbs often stem from verbs, such as how chilly can come from to chill. (Quickly would not have changed the sentence to ‘he quickened down the dark alley,’ but it could have become ‘he quickened his pace down the dark alley.’ I would still have cut this last option down to ‘he hurried.’) So instead of ‘his skin was chilly from the cold’, chilly changes to chilled and becomes active in ‘the cold chilled his skin.’

Takeaways.

  1. Passive voice includes any ‘being verbs’ (be, was, been, is, were, am, are) and –ly adverbs
  2. Active verbs are any other verbs besides being verbs and adverbs
  3. Active voice trumps passive voice in most cases because it invites the reader into the story
  4. Active verbs replace [being verb] + [-ly adverb]
  5. Adverbs can be used as an indicator of the active verbs you need and converted into them
  6. Passive voice has its place, but not very often

How I learned this skill.

I, too, got feedback on my writing that told me to change from passive voice to active voice. Mind you, this advice came from my high school English class where I had begun to learn how to write essays and research papers. So the explanation was this: “Do a word search in your document for being verbs and adverbs, then delete them.”

Well. They must have meant to say ‘replace them.’ I did follow this advice. But once I found a being verb, I had to figure out what to do with it. That’s when I learned to replace them with active verbs (since I had nothing else to use). You can sure do this to help you activate your prose and I encourage you to do so as you get started. But using this ‘find + replace’ method takes forever. I suggest learning to write in the active voice in the first place. Makes your life much easier.

I made it a point to practice this method of avoiding being verbs and -ly adverbs. I told myself I could use neither unless absolutely necessary, and even then, I would exhaust all my alternatives first. Not until I had written my way through a huge chunk of my flash fiction series, The Hopeful Wanderer, did I begin to feel that I had a firm understanding of when I could use passive voice.

So I say to you, learn to write with active voice until you know it by muscle memory, then let yourself play around.

Got any questions about converting passive voice into active voice? Let me know in the comments below. If you have any stories about how YOU learned to write in active voice, I want to hear them!


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