As writers, we hear the advice to use active voice early in our careers. For new writers, this can be a challenge. Even those of us who have been writing for a while can use a refresher.
What is active voice? In active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action. This is in opposition to passive voice, in which the subject receives the action. To decide if you have an active voice or passive voice sentence, find the subject first and then decide if the subject is the one doing the action or receiving the action.
Using active voice means avoiding “to be” verbs: is, was, were, are, be, being, and been. These verbs tell instead of show. The active voice also allows you to be specific about character or setting. Using active voice clarifies meaning for readers and provides succinct sentences. Passive voice, on the other hand, can be wordy and cloud the meaning of your sentences. For example, “I have a puppy,” provides little detail, but “I chose the runt of the litter, a small, feisty Yorkshire terrier,” gives you a glimpse of a tiny dog with a big attitude.
Occasionally, you may wish to use a “to be” verb. Using a “to be” verb is not a grammatical error and may be necessary in some instances. However, you will want to be aware not to overuse passive voice because this will weaken your writing.
Years ago, I asked one of my English professors to critique an essay I had written for his class. I had revised it several times and thought it was pretty good. He ripped it apart. His advice: change all passive voice sentences to active voice and watch my transitions (a blog topic for another day). As I revised the essay again, I was surprised to see the number of times I had used the passive voice without even realizing it. By the time I was done with my revisions, I had an A paper.
How do you ensure that you use active voice? Do you make a conscious effort to use active voice in your first draft, or do you go back and revise to eliminate passive voice sentences? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!