How To Spot, Fix and Eliminate Passive Voice In Everything You Write

How To Spot, Fix and Eliminate Passive Voice In Everything You Write

One of the keys to holding a reader’s interest from beginning to end is mastering the skill of writing in the “active voice”.   It isn’t that difficult, actually – you do it all the time – but it’s very easy to make the mistake of slipping into passive voice throughout your work.

Passive voice, left unchecked, slaughters reader interest more efficiently than a glaring typo.

When a reader catches a small misspelling, they at least can chalk it up to a mistake. But when they read too much passive voice in your writing … well, they just think you’re boring.

How to spot passive voice in your writing

You end up with passive voice in your writing when you get your nouns out of order within a sentence. The subject of your sentence, not the object in the sentence, should precede the verb. For example:

“James wrote a killer blog post.”

“The killer blog post was written by James.”

You already know the difference in readability between those two sentences, and that’s because, most of the time, passive voice, doesn’t feel right or sound natural to you.

You can also spot passive voice when you look for two verbs stuck together: “was written” was the dead giveaway in the example above. Other common red flags of passive language include “has been”, “will be” and “to be”.

For the most part, you’ll write in active voice instinctively. You automatically knew the second sentence would sound clunky if you said it out loud, so chances are low that you’d ever consider writing it that way.

However, passive voice is a sneaky devil, especially in longer or more complex sentences where it’s easy to misjudge the subject and the object. Take a look at this example:

“The sports of hockey, curling and ice skating are loved by Canadians in particular.”

That looks straightforward and readable, right? Now compare it with this version:

“Canadians particularly love hockey, curling and ice skating.”

Read them both out loud. (Whisper if you need to.) The second one (in active voice) is easier to say, which means it’s easier to read. It has more energy. It doesn’t feel like it’s trailing off into a land of boredom.

It wins.

How to fix passive voice instantly

Passive voice is easy to fix. All you have to do is rewrite your sentence so that the subject of your sentence comes before the verb. You’ll find your sentences tighten up as you do so, which automatically improves your writing, too.

Checking your sentences for passive voice may seem like a chore, but it’s not as demanding as scouring your text for typos. Just keep your eyes open for action-based sentences.

If someone is doing something, double check to see if it looks like the “something” was being done to them.

You can also check for passive voice using the Hemmingway App, a website that scans through your writing looking for examples of passive voice and difficult-to-read sentences. It’ll also gives you an indication of the grade level of your writing, which is a nice plus.

Why is passive voice so pervasive in writing?

I’ll leave that to Stephen King, who said it best in his book On Writing:

I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers love passive partners. The passive voice is safe. There is no troublesome action to contend with; the subject just has to close it’s eyes and think of England, to paraphrase Queen Victoria. I think that unsure writers also feel the passive voice somehow lends their work authority, perhaps even a quality of majesty. If you find instruction manuals and lawyer’s torts majestic, I guess it does.

I agree with this. Far too often writers believe that they have to make their writing sound impressive and wordy – I mean, “eloquent” – and that passive voice has some sort of grown-up, schoolteacher feel.

No. It doesn’t. Not even close. Tight, active writing is more impressive, almost every time.

Of course, there are exceptions

At the beginning of this article, I didn’t say passive voice was inherently bad for your writing. I said that passive voice, left unchecked, would damage readability and interest.

Sometimes you’ll actually want to use the passive voice. Sometimes it sounds more memorable and makes your writing pop. In fact, I used passive voice earlier when I said:

If someone is doing something, double check to see if it looks like the “something” was being done to them.

In this case, passive voice adds weight and impact to the sentence, and makes the reader think (in a good way). But you need to use it intentionally, and test against other variations of the same sentence.

So that’s what you need to know about eliminating passive voice from your writing. Keep it active, make sure your nouns and verbs are in the right place, and you’ll be off to the races. And remember: You don’t have to avoid passive voice entirely – only about 99.5% of the time.

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.

Join the Discussion. Click Here to Leave a Comment.

  1. Passive voice — the never-ending battle! Your 99.5% formula sounds about right, likely about the same as for dosing oneself with iocane powder.

    The poster child for passive voice came to us by way of Tricky Dick: “Mistakes were made.”

    Note: Typo or malaprop in the King quote: “it’s”. Kinda makes one of the gods of modern pop lit more human, doesn’t it? :-)

    Thanks for this post!

  2. I love your words and appreciate your help bites.
    Right when I need it. xS

  3. I think people use passive voice to sound more businesslike. So, you get it a lot in corporate web copy. Even some bloggers do it. But the detachment that passive voice creates is a real turn-off (often an unconscious turn-off) for the Actual Human Beings who have to read it. Active sentences are much warmer and more familiar. Thanks fir the reminder, James.

  4. This is a great post. I especially liked the reason you cited writers use the passive voice–timidity. That makes sense to me, as I can be somewhat timid, but I really work hard not to use the passive voice. It was helpful to read what that looks like so I can better avoid it.
    I also enjoyed your description of how writing should be–tight–and how that actually is more impressive and powerful.
    Thanks for the tips!


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