Use Active Voice to Improve Your Manuscript

Improve Your Manuscript by Using Active Voice

You can often improve your writing by using active voice instead of passive voice.

Not only is active voice more direct and vivid but also active voice reduces wordiness.

Get others to review your writing.
Active voice reduces wordiness.

Notice the construction of the following sentences. Those that use active voice use less wording. Furthermore, the reader quickly sees the action of the sentence.

  1. The slingshot was made by John’s grandfather using a forked branch and a piece of leather. (passive)
  2. John’s grandfather made a slingshot with a forked branch and a piece of leather. (active)
  1. A shadow was cast over the water by an enormous oak tree. (passive)
  2. An enormous oak tree cast its shadow over the water. (active)
  1. The family was served by the new waitress. (passive)
  2. The new waitress served the family. (active)
  1. The minutes of the last meeting were discussed by the board members. (passive)
  2. The board members discussed the minutes of the last meeting. (active)

Find sentences using passive voice and edit them.

How can I quickly find sentences using passive voice and edit them if necessary?

Check details carefully.
Check for use of passive voice and edit if needed.

Use Navigation Tools

One way to quickly search for passive voice is to use the Navigation Tool or Find Tool in your word processing program.

Look in sentences containing certain words.

Search your manuscript for helping or “be” verbs (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been) and the verbs shall, will, have, has, and had.  However, if these verbs are being used as linking verbs, the sentence will not be in passive voice.

Notice the construction of the following sentences:

  1. The rose is a thorny shrub. (The verb is not passive because the “be” verb is linking.)
  2. The rose cast its petals on the table. (active)
  3. The petals were cast to the table by the rose. (passive)
  1. The sea was inky dark and frightening. (The verb is not passive because the “be” verb is linking.)
  2. The sea tossed its dark waters into the ship. (active)
  3. The ship was being tossed by the turbulent sea. (passive)

Is the subject doing the action?

Another way to check for active or passive voice is to find out if the subject is doing the action or receiving the action of the verb.

Notice the construction of the following sentences:

  1. A guard is protecting the bank teller. (The verb is active because the subject is doing the protecting.)
  2. The bank teller is being protected by the guard. (The verb is passive because the subject of the sentence is not doing but receiving the action. The bank teller is not doing the protecting.)
  1. The hummingbird was pursuing the insect. (The verb is active because the subject is doing the action.)
  2. The insect was being pursued by the hummingbird. (The verb is passive because the subject of the sentence is receiving the action. The insect is not doing the pursuing.)

Search in sentences with prepositional phrases beginning with “by”.

An additional search should be made for sentences with prepositional phrases beginning with the preposition “by.”

Notice that the above sentences which use passive voice have a prepositional phrase beginning with the preposition “by” that reveals the doer of the action.

  1. The bank teller is being protected by the guard. (passive)

The one who is doing the protecting is the object of the preposition “by.”

The bank teller (subject) is being protected (verb) by the guard (prepositional phrase).

  1. The insect was being pursued by the hummingbird. (passive)

The one who is doing the pursuing is the object of the preposition “by.”

The insect (subject) was being pursued (verb) by the hummingbird (prepositional phrase).

 

When is the passive voice acceptable?

Sometimes using the passive voice is appropriate.

Emphasis

The passive voice is used when the receiver of the action is being emphasized.

  1. A Look at Life from a Deer Stand was written by Steve Chapman and published by Harvest House Publishers. (The title of the book is being emphasized.)
  2. The burglar was arrested by an off-duty officer. (The burglar is being emphasized.)

Variety

The passive voice is sometimes used to create a change in sentence beginnings. This is especially helpful in avoiding repetition of the same wording as the subject of sentences.

Scientific Writings

The passive voice is also appropriate in scientific writings.

  1. First, the surface was cleaned with bleach.
  2. Second, the petri dishes were prepared.
Proofreading steps include edit, rewrite, and present.
Proofread your sentences carefully.

Make your manuscript more interesting to the reader by using active voice.

Reduce the wordiness.

Help readers see the action and improve their reading experience.

Copyright ©2017 by Peggy Clark

Join in the conversation.
Have you found yourself using passive voice when you should be using active voice?
What problems are you experiencing when writing your rough drafts?

 

 

 

Four Tips to a Great Book

Craft a great story.

Publish your accomplishment.

Keep me coming back for more.

Who doesn’t love lounging under warm covers with a good book in hand?

Which of you haven’t staved off sleep to finish a page-turner?

What keeps your book in my hands when others are screaming for my attention?

These four tips will drown those other voices and get me to your final page.

  1. Get my attention!

  • Use the active voice.

Even if you begin your story with the setting (where, when) that so many of us were taught in class, use active voice instead of passive voice.

Consider the following:

The sun was setting behind the hills that were around the little town of NoWhere. John and Jill were living in a house at the end of Sober Street. There was a garden beside the house. They also had a small flock of chickens.

So nowhere…and boring…and sober….and are you asleep yet?

Or would this be your preference:

The sun peered above the hills and threw its rays into the town of NoWhere reaching through the half-closed curtains at the end of Sober Street. Inside, John and Jill absorbed the potential consequences of their pillaged garden.

  • Activate your story with action.

A dramatic scene is better than an uneventful one; such as, an evening ride that happens to end in a crash. Startle me with the crash and then give me the details.

Consider the following:

John and Jill decided to go for a ride. They were riding down the highway in their red convertible when they happened upon a white truck.

Or would this be your preference:

Brakes screamed as white meshed with red, each vying to occupy the same spot of pavement.

Television dramas reveal the crime first and then continue through a series of events that lead to the capture of the accused. The action creates the desire to know what happened and why.

NCIS is the number one television drama because of the usage of this method. Its viewers keep coming back for more.

  • Use questions to get attention.

Another method is to use questions to gain attention.

Jesus used this method when relaying His Parable of the Lost Sheep:

“What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?” Luke 15:4

If nothing else, make me step into the story long enough to answer the question.

  1. Don’t make me hunt for the topic.

When presented with questions from John the Baptist, Jesus’ response was direct: Go and tell. Notice His response in the following verse:

“Go your way, and tell John what things ye have seen and heard; how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached.” Luke 7:22

John’s disciples were to report to John what they themselves had seen and heard. That is telling the story. Teachers call it “Sticking to the Topic.”

Jesus also used strong nouns and active verbs.

Notice the simple but succinct wording that lets us visualize the action:

The blind see. The lame walk. The lepers are cleansed. The deaf hear. The dead are raised. The gospel is preached.

Tell me your story with strong nouns and verbs that let me use my imagination to see the action. Don’t drag me down with a series of unnecessary and lengthy descriptives that send me to a screeching halt and a closed book.

  1. Keep me interested.

  • Give me a scenario that gets my attention and keeps me reading.

When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he told a parable that caught their attention.

“There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of my adversary.” Luke 18:2-3

  • Use the element of surprise to your advantage.

This parable pitted a ruthless judge against a widow who had no man to intercede for her. Her boldness in coming before the judge intrigued the disciples.

How would this judge respond? Obviously, not as the disciples imagined. The element of surprise caught the disciples off-guard causing them to think carefully about what they had just heard. Please surprise me!

  • Get my attention and keep me hunting for the next clue.

Unravel the threads of the story ever so slowly but at just the right speed to keep me traveling to the next page.

Don’t lose me in wasted words and unnecessary actions that add no value to the story.

  1. Make me satisfied with the ending (but you can make me beg for more!)

Cinderella and the Prince lived happily ever after. (But, what change came over the kingdom?)

The woodsman killed the wolf. (But, did Goldilocks overcome the trauma of her grandmother’s death?)

“And they said, Lord, behold, here are two swords. And he said unto them, It is enough.” Luke 22:38

It is enough. Say what you need to say, no more, no less. (But, why two swords? One cut off a soldier’s ear; what did the other do?)

I expect Good to win over Evil. I expect Evil to be reprimanded. I expect Good to be rewarded regardless of the troubles that Good encounters.

Shakespeare’s classics stood the test of time because of these expectations woven throughout his stories.

Use these four tips to make yours a classic, and let me enjoy it for years to come.

Copyright 2016 by Peggy Clark


Do you have a story waiting to be shared?

Have you used strong nouns and active verbs?

Have you replaced unnecessary and lengthy wording with specific and descriptive wording?

Then now is the time to let someone else preview your writing. Use their analysis to improve your story.

Peggy Clark is the author of So, What's the Latest News? Messages from a Prisoner in Rome published by WestBow Press, a division of Thomas Nelson & Zondervan.