Welcome to lesson three of Unboring Your Writing.
Once you know about passive voice, you’ll never be able to hear a passive sentence again without twitching just a bit.
I know passive and active voice sounds like a boring subject, but it’s one of my favourites, because voice makes such a huge difference to writing. Often, like many of the things you’re learning about in this course, voice can be the difference between good writing and excellent writing.
First, a quick rundown (very quick!) of what passive voice is and what active voice is.
Passive voice is when the doer of an action comes after the action (or is left out entirely).
Active voice is when the doer (subject) comes before the action.
Here’s an example of passive voice: The sandwich was eaten.
Here’s that same sentence in active voice: I ate the sandwich.
See how that works? The object of the active sentence (the sandwich) takes the place of the subject and is moved up to the front, before the action. The doer (the subject, in the active sentence) is moved right to the end, after the action. (Even though in my example the doer seems to be absent, their presence is implied: The sandwich was eaten [by doer].)
Below are a few sentences from one of my recent blog posts, written in both passive and active voice.
I absolutely love writing on the train.
Writing on the train is absolutely loved by me.
I have some of my best ideas while I’m on the bus.
Some of my best ideas are had while on the bus.
You could fill up all of your public transport hours.
All your public transport hours could be filled up.
Which would you rather read? The active, right? It’s just cleaner and more engaging.
So now that we know all about passive and active voice, I’m going to give you a tip to ensure you’ll never forget how to identify passive voice.
If you can add ‘by zombies’ to the end of a sentence (or after the action), and it makes sense, you’ve probably got passive voice on your hands.
Let’s test it out.
Writing on the train is absolutely loved by zombies.
Some of my best ideas are had by zombies while on the bus.
The sandwich was eaten by zombies.
This mini-course was taken by zombies.
See? Magic. Just remember: by zombies.
Passive voice can be super useful—for instance, using passive voice is great if you’re trying to deflect blame (pick it out next time you’re listening to a politician or company announce negative news).
(Here’s a great article about politicians and other famous people using passive voice to distance themselves from their mistakes.)
Although passive voice is a useful trick to keep in mind, for most writing you do, you’re going to want to use active voice—it helps you to get to the point more quickly and tidies up your writing. You’ll also find that active voice will help your reader to more easily connect with your writing.
Exercise: Pick a random blog post or piece of writing and find an instance of passive voice. Rewrite it in active voice. Does it work better?
Liked this lesson? There's lots more where that came from in my workbook, Blog in Bloom. I wrote it specifically for bloggers, infopreneurs, and small-biz owners who need to have top-notch writing skills, but don't know about detailed grammar stuff (like passive voice!). Find out more here.
PS: Want the Unboring Your Writing workbook? It's a printable and fillable PDF workbook with the same exercises as these lessons, plus answers. You can find it here.