There probably is no technique as effective as using the active voice to immediately improve the quality of your narrative writing. The active voice mandates that the subject of a sentence performs the action. “Babe hit the ball.” In the passive voice, the subject shifts to receiving rather than performing the action: “The ball was hit by Babe.” Note that words are added and impact of the sentence weakened.
The definition/distinction in “grammarianese” states, “A verb is said to be in the active voice when it expresses an action performed by its subject. A verb is in the passive voice when the action it expresses is performed upon its subject.”
The important distinction is that verb in a passive sentence is always a verb phrase that employs the verb be and the past participle of the main verb. Typically, the subject in the active voice sentence, becomes the object of an adverbial prepositional phrase in the passive voice sentence, and can sometimes be dropped altogether, with little harm to the clarity of the sentence. Keep this in mind. It will at least help you improve a passive voice sentence, should you insist on using the form. For example: The active voice sentence, “The lecturer provided helpful diagrams,” when converted into the passive voice, becomes, “Helpful diagrams were provided by the lecturer.” You could drop the “by the lecturer.”
I am not pounding my fist on the table and shouting, “You must endeavor to use the active voice at all times.” However, a conscious effort to increase its use has its benefits: (1) shorter, more concise sentences that get directly to the point, and, (2) stronger verbs, which tend to carry the action and are considerably more visual in nature. The passive voice paints in gray, the active voice paints in color.
Only transitive verbs—those that take an object—are used in the passive voice. Transitive verbs generally are wimpier than their intransitive (i.e., stand alone) brethren, and present one of the best arguments for using the active voice. Stated alternatively, the transitive verb in the passive voice needs assistance from an adverbial phrase. The intransitive verb used in the active voice has sufficient strength to stand alone and succinctly express the subject’s action, as the following examples show:
- Active: Willa Cather wrote My Antonia.
Passive: My Antonia was written by Willa Cather.
- Active: Someone has erased the videotape. / Someone erased the videotape.
Passive: The videotapes have been erased (by someone).
The examples show also that writing in the active voice is not always preferred. (In grammar, even suggestions have exceptions!) There are plenty of times when you want the subject in the active voice sentence to receive the action because passive voice form has greater effect. Consider the detective in a robbery-murder scene checking on whether the shooter’s actions were captured by the store’s hidden surveillance system. Rather than declare, “Someone erased these video tapes,” you might want him to say, disappointedly, “These videotapes have been erased by someone,” as he turns and accusingly looks at the four employees in the jewelry store with the owner’s dead body on the floor in the background, in a pool of blood.
Thinking about the voice of your sentence obliges you to consider alternative structures for all your sentences. A string of passive voice sentences come across as weak, and to the reader’s ear sounds redundantly bland. Unfortunately, for some mysterious reason, most of us tend to write in the passive voice initially. By thinking about the voice of each sentence, you begin to think about the effectiveness of each sentence. The process becomes more automatic and you’ll find yourself catching yourself when you write in the weaker passive form. Over time you’ll start to produce better sentences as your first alternative and enjoy seeing how the stronger verbs of the active voice improves the overall visual impact of your writing.
Additionally, using the active voice reduces use of the participle verb form, which is associated with the passive voice and sports considerable wimpy qualities. The –ing participle form simply sounds weak. (I’m ignoring the past participle form—ed.) Getting rid of the participle takes a little more effort than merely shifting from the passive to the active voice. You can’t just dump “I was singing” and use “I sang,” for the simple reason its tense may not fit the circumstances of the scene you’re writing. “I was singing when a shot rang out,” can’t become “I sang when a shot rang out.” But, “As I sang, a shot rang out,” works and the sentence has more impact. “A shot rang out as I sang,” works, too. “A shot rang out as I was singing,” has less power.
By being sensitive to the distinction between the active and passive voice, you will become more sensitive to and inclined to write stronger sentences. After a while you’ll find yourself writing stronger sentences in your first draft rather than removing weak ones from it.
Too, you’ll discover that using the active voice reduces the need for too many adverbs. The stronger your verb the less it needs to be propped up with adverbs.
It’s not merely a question of applying a better sentence structure that drives the decision to use the active or passive voice. Sometimes the action is more important than the subject, which makes the passive voice the more effective of the two, a la the detective in the jewelry store. But, for the most part, the active voice works best. Consider these three sets of sentences borrowed from The Writer’s Digest’s Grammar Desk Reference by Gary Lutz and Diane Stevenson:
- The youngsters ate all the pie before the party.
The pie was eaten by the youngsters before the party.
- My son wrecked the car last night.
The car was wrecked by my son last night.
- The storm damaged the crops and tore up the land.
The crops were damaged and the land torn up by the storm.
So be aware and practice sensitivity to how you write what you’re saying. Writers should avoid over use of the passive voice, which is achieved by judicious use of the active voice. Or should that be, over use of the passive voice should be avoided by writers? Sometimes it just boils down to what sounds better under the given circumstances, but care adds to the quality of the circumstances!