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?