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Active vs. Passive Voice and When to Use Them in Your Manuscript

Active vs. Passive Voice and When to Use Them in Your Manuscript

Using the passive voice in your novel is not the end of the world. It isn’t grammatically incorrect, and, it is quite common. There are times when a passive voice is necessary, or, as a writer’s convention or style choice. However, your manuscript’s magic may be lost as readers try to fumble through a passive voice to connect with your characters or content.

If you’re post-secondary educated, passive voice has been drilled into you in the strive for objectivity. If you’re female, you may be more likely to use passive phrasing as a result of social norms. If you’re a politician, well, you use the passive voice all the time.

Using an active voice in your novel or non-fiction means greater clarity for your readers, and, a solid immersive experience for them too. Below I’ve summaries the pros and cons of using the active versus using the passive voice in your manuscript (this applies to most non-fiction and fiction work).

What is the Difference?

Active voice character(s) (subject) performs an action.

Passive voice character(s) (subject) have something happen to them indirectly.

For Example:
Active: She ran.
Passive: She was running.

Writers often fall into the passive when using flashbacks or shallow point of view, or, when there is fear or uncertainty about what is being written.

Cons of Passive Voice

  • Wordiness
  • Confusing/unclear and can obscure meaning
  • Use prepositions/ create prepositional phrases
  • Creates distance between reader and characters by inserting a passive narrator
  • Can be inaccessible for an average audience and is often difficult for English learners to comprehend
  • Promotes power imbalances and is often used to dehumanize minorities and marginalized people
  • “agentless passive voice” can be used to evade responsibility (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet)

When to Use Passive

  • Emphasize something other than the subject/character such as a key item in a mystery or thriller novel that is integral to the plot while obscuring the character who performed the crime.
  • Build a sense of mystery
  • Writing a report or news release
  • Create anonymity
  • You need an authoritative or professional tone
  • Using a passive voice lends a sense of objectivity, and so is often used in scientific writing and business reports to put distance between the reader and the content

Pros of Using an Active Voice

  • Creates an immersive experience for the reader
  • Shorter phrases
  • Adds clarity to your work
  • Improves pacing
  • Gives a sense of immediacy
  • Is accessible to the majority of readers

What to Look for in Your Manuscript

Prepositions:

Prepositions indicate a relationship between the subject (noun/pronoun/character) and the rest of the sentence, phrase, or clause. i.e. Zoe and the rest of the dragons – “and” and ‘of’ are prepositions. See Oxford Dictionaries for a brief overview.  A list of prepositions can be found here.

Common offenders:
  • “by”
  • “was”
  • “had”
  • “felt”
  • words ending in ing

Sources

  1. Language and Gender by Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell-Ginet
  2. Gendered Talk at Work by Janet Holmes
  3. http://writing.wisc.edu/Handbook/CCS_activevoice.html
  4. http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/active-voice-versus-passive-voice?page=1
  5. https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/539/02/
  6. https://www.englishclub.com/grammar/prepositions-list.htm
  7. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/grammar/prepositions
  8. http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3831 

 

Want to know more or want Catherine on your team (she’s an editor/Alpha/Beta Reader too!)? Contact her.



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