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Fixing Passive Voice For Authors: Tips and Tricks for Engaging Prose

Fixing passive voice can be tricky, especially if you’re a go-with-the-flow kind of writer. 

Sometimes, you might not even realize that you’re using the passive voice at all. It is only when you stop and take a closer look at your work that you notice that your writing is filled with lazy passive constructions. “The ball was thrown by the boy,” “The cheese was eaten by the mouse,” among others.

With that in mind, this blog post will teach you how to identify and fix passive writing, once and for all.

Pretend that you’re diving into this blog post with an elementary school-level understanding of English.

Heck, for most people, they wouldn’t even have to pretend. The average reading level of Americans is only at the 7th to 8th grade.

But for now, let’s imagine you’re just 12 years old, and you still haven’t gone through a David Foster Wallace phase yet.

You’re reading a bog-standard fantasy book, filled with magical dragons, evil wizards, and all that good stuff.
And here is its introductory sentence:

“The prophecy was fulfilled when the chosen one was revealed by the wise oracle, and the fate of the realm was changed forever.”

Hmmm.. that sentence is grammatically correct. But something feels off. 

A few paragraphs later, and you run into sentences like these: 

“A potion, containing rare herbs and mystical ingredients, was brewed by a mysterious alchemist.”
“As a result of a spell cast by a powerful wizard, the kingdom became shrouded in darkness.”

You really can’t put a finger to it, but the writing feels a bit… weak. Like it severely lacks vitality and excitement. The author intended this to be an exciting fantasy book. So why do these sentences seem so bland and lifeless?

Congratulations, you’ve discovered the curse of the passive voice! It lurks in the shadows, plaguing many newbie authors’ work with its dull and sleep-inducing prose. 

But thankfully you have a guide in your hands that will teach you how to lift the passive writing curse once and for all. 

All you need to do is to read on.

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What is the passive voice?

In English grammar, the “voice” of the verb refers to the relationship between a sentence’s subject and its underlying action. 

When the verb is acting upon the subject (i.e., doing something to it), then we say that the sentence or clause is written in the passive voice.

Let’s take a look at one of our previous examples, “The ball was thrown by the boy.” 

The subject is the ball, and the verb is “thrown.” The throwing action was done TO the ball by the boy.  We’re much more focused on the ball, instead of the boy who has done the throwing. 

We can rework that sentence into the more succinct “The boy threw the ball.

This time, the focus is on the boy. 

The boy is now the subject of the sentence; he is also the one who has done the throwing (i.e. the verb or the action of the sentence). We have reworked the passive sentence into an active one.

But we’ll get into the active voice later on. For now let’s see more examples of passive voice in writing.

Passive voice sentences and explanations

The source code will be given to you by our head engineer. 
The “source code” is the subject; it is being acted upon by the verb “will be given” by the agent of the verb, which is “our head engineer.”
The cake was baked by the chef.This sentence is passively constructed. The “cake,” our subject, is acted upon by the verb “was baked.” The doer of the verb (i.e. the one who did the cooking) is the chef (who is not the subject of the sentence).
My laptop was stolen.“My laptop” is the subject that is being acted upon by the verb “was stolen.” No agent of the verb was specified here, so we don’t know who stole it.
As a result of a spell cast by a powerful wizard, the kingdom became shrouded in darkness.A complex sentence, with an independent and a dependent clause. The verb here is “became shrouded in darkness” which describes something about our subject, “the kingdom.”

What is the active voice? 

We use the active voice when the subject performs the action of the sentence.

For example, here is a sentence written in a passive voice:

"The Ring was forged by Sauron and later destroyed by Frodo."

To write this sentence in the active voice, we can say:

“Sauron forged the ring, but Frodo ultimately destroyed it."

By doing so, the focus shifts from the One Ring to Sauron and Frodo. The subjects (Sauron and Frodo) are doing the actions (“forged” and “destroyed”). 

This is in direct contrast to the earlier passive version of the sentence, which has the Ring as the subject AND the receiver of the actions (“forged by Sauron,” “destroyed by Frodo”). 

passive writing should be cast into the fiery pits of Mt. Doom

Another passive example:

“The match is being won by our teammates.”

…which we will now turn into the active:

“Our teammates are winning the match.”

The sentence is shorter, yet it conveys the same meaning. This new sentence is even livelier and easier to understand than the original passive sentence. 

Why? Because we’ve placed the focus on the teammates instead of the match. “Our teammates are winning” is stronger than “The match is being won.”

Let’s revisit our table of passive sentences from earlier, and turn them into active sentences.

Passive voice versus active voice

Passive voiceActive voice
The source code will be given to you by our head engineer.Our head engineer will give you the source code.
The cake was baked by the chef.The chef baked the cake.
My laptop was stolen.Somebody stole my laptop.
As a result of a spell cast by a powerful wizard, the kingdom became shrouded in darkness.The powerful wizard cast a spell, shrouding the kingdom in darkness.

Even if you’re not into writing and are unfamiliar with the ins and outs of English grammar, you can see the obvious difference between the sentences on the left with those on the right. 

Fixing passive voice and making the objects the DOER of the action instead of the receiver instantly made the sentences more interesting and engaging to read. 

It’s amazing how a simple switch from the passive to the active voice can add a touch of flavor to an otherwise bland sentence.

Why should you favor the active voice in your writing?

Absolutely, especially if you dabble in non-fiction. The less passive sentences that you have in your book, the better.

Writing in passive voice makes YOU, the narrator, sound boring, dull, and well, passive.

It also makes you sound like you’re not in control of the situation. As if you’re just reacting to things around you and not taking charge.

Passive voice can lead to confusion, especially when it is truncated.

The truncated passive voice happens when the doer of the action is just implied or not referenced in the sentence. Examples: “The window was broken.” (broken by whom?). “My laptop was stolen.” (again, stolen by whom?).  This may lead to a whole lot of unnecessary confusion and questions.

Active voice is easier to understand.

When you want to be persuasive, you need to use shorter direct sentences. You don’t want to bog down your reader with extra words that will waste their time.

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Fixing passive passive voice – how to spot it

As we’ve seen before, switching the voice of a sentence from passive to active makes it more concise. It allows your readers to follow your argument better. 

So the first step in fixing passive voice in your writing is, of course, learning how to spot it. 

Here are two of the major things that you need to look for: 

Look for sentences that fit the basic passive formula

A passive sentence usually follows the formula:
<Subject> + <some conjugation of the be-verb> + <the past participle of a verb> + “by” + <performer of the action>

“The diamond necklace was stolen by a robber.”

Subject: “The diamond” + be-verb: “was” + past participle of verb: “stolen” + “by” + performer of action: “robber”

Watch out for truncated passives

Sometimes, a sentence can be passive even if the doer of the action is missing from it. 

The sentence “The diamond necklace was stolen by a robber,” will still make sense if you remove the prepositional phrase “by a robber” from it. 

Like so: “The diamond necklace was stolen.”

But even if the doer is not there, the sentence is still in passive voice. The prepositional phrase “by [doer of action]” is just optional.

Identifying passive sentences lifehacks

Sometimes, we just can’t be bothered into finding out who the subject of a sentence is and deciding whether or not it is the doer or receiver of an action. It takes too much time and brain energy.

So if you want to make your life easier, here are some life hacks that can help you determine whether a sentence is in the passive voice or not in mere seconds.

Look for the word “by”

If a sentence has the word “by” in it, then it’s usually passive.

In passive sentences, the subject or receiver of the action comes first, and the performer of the action comes after it, usually introduced with the preposition “by.”

Here’s a tip: if the sentence has the word “by” in it, then there is a high chance that it is a sentence written in the passive voice. 

“The bone was chewed on by the dog.”
“Mark has been bitten by an alligator but has lived to tell the tale.”

Look for any form of the “to be” verb. 

There are passive sentences without the word “by” in them. 

“My writing computer was broken.”
“The concert tickets have been sold out.”
“The mysterious sarcophagus has been broken into.”

Take note of all the forms of the ‘to be’ verb (e.g. is, are, was, were, has been, have been, etc.) and memorize them. If a ‘to be’ verb is used in a sentence, it is highly likely that the sentence is in the passive voice, even if the doer of the action is not explicitly stated.

Zombify your sentence!

This sounds particularly silly, but hear us out first. 

We know that it can be hard to edit your own work for weak and passive writing. All of this stuff about subjects and verbs and what-have-you can be confusing, moreso if you’re not a grammar nerd yourself.

So if you find yourself unsure on whether a particular sentence of yours is in passive voice or not, then try the Zombie Test! USMC culture and ethics professor Rebecca Johnson popularized this method, and it’s probably one of the best and funniest writing advice that you’ll ever encounter.

Fixing passive voice using zombies

1st step: Append the phrase “by zombies” after the verb. 

2nd step: If your sentence still makes sense upon the addition of zombies, then it’s passive. 

3rd step: Rework your sentence until the wayward zombies do not make sense anymore. 

With that said, here is the zombie test in action:

The sentence in question: “The floor lamp has been knocked over.

Let’s add the zombies: “The floor lamp has been knocked over by zombies!

Does it make sense? Yes, it does! So your sentence is in passive voice.

We can rework it to “The zombies (or some other subject) knocked over the floor lamp,” to make it active. 

Another example:

The sentence: “The man took a shot at the monster.

Adding the zombies gives you “The man took by zombies a shot at the monster.

It didn’t make sense, right? So, we can say that the original sentence was in active voice and did not require any further fixing. 

Use a passive to active voice converter

Sometimes, we really don’t have the privilege of time to run through the entirety of our book just to pick out and edit all of the passive bits. 

Thankfully, we have a lot of online tools at our disposal to make this task easier. 

Try out these passive checkers and see what you like best:

With these tools, all you have to do is to select and copy your text (Ctrl + C),  then paste it in the textbox provided. 

How do you turn passive into active?

Once you have identified all of the passive sentences in your writing, it’s time to rewrite them.

You should adjust and rework these passive sentences so that their subjects are the ones performing the action.

An easy way to do this is by simply placing the object that is doing the action BEFORE the verb, instead of after it.

“Mr. Smith was fired by the CEO in light of his recent terrible performance at work.”

We can turn that sentence into active voice by switching the positions of the CEO and the verb (fired).

“The CEO fired Mr. Smith in light of his recent terrible performance at work.” 

Another example, but this time for a truncated passive:

“Precautions were taken to prevent the data from being leaked to unauthorized third-parties.”

Who took the precautions in that sentence?

Fixing passive voice in that sentence, we can add in a subject that does the action (“taking precautions”).

“The company took precautions to prevent the data from being leaked to unauthorized third-parties.”

We added in an explicit subject (“the company”) that performs the action of “taking precautions”, thus leading to a clearer sentence.

Should you always fix passive voice in your writing? 

Is passive voice bad?  

The answer is… not really. As a matter of fact, there are times when it might be more preferable, like in statements where the doer of the action is unknown.

“My phone was stolen yesterday.” (You have no idea who stole your phone.).

Scientific and academic writers also use passive voice to lend an air of objectivity to the text.

“It has been suggested by previous research that there is a correlation between exercise frequency and heart disease risk.”

Additionally, one can use the passive voice for creative effect. Like for example, in this sentence:

“Mistakes were made.”

Compared to its active counterpart (“[Some subject] made mistakes”), the passive form of the sentence above definitely reads more powerfully. 

But in general, active voice is what you should be using 90% of the time. Using the active voice is always preferred unless you overwhelmingly need to use the passive voice. It is clearer, livelier, more direct, and more urgent. Only use passive constructions if absolutely necessary. 

Final Words

Fixing passive voice can be challenging. But as that Beatles song goes, you can always get by with a little help (from your friends).
Leaders Press is here to save you from the hassle of editing. Our team has highly skilled editors on board that can handle any passive voice concerns for your book, ensuring impeccably crafted text every time.

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