Active Versus Passive Voice: The #1 Way To Use Voice To Empower Your Writing

Sarah Rexford

One of the crucial elements of your writing journey is understanding active versus passive voice. Writes with strong writing often write in active voice. Proactive heroes, protagonists who take charge, and our favorite characters often demonstrate active tendencies.

On the other hand, passive voice is sometimes used both accidentally and intentionally. How do we know when to use active versus passive voice? What do they mean? What are the proper ways to use these two polar opposite voices? In this article, we discuss: 

  • Active Versus Passive: Defined
  • When To Use
  • When Not To Use
  • Examples From Real Writing

If you’re new to writing, consider this a 30,000-foot view of what to do and what not to do. If you are a writer with years of experience, use this as a refresher to familiarize yourself with this highly discussed writing rule. 

Active Versus Passive: Defined

A simple way to define active versus passive voice is by saying active voice does the action, and passive voice is acted upon. As you seek to differentiate between the two, look for these common red-flag words:

  • Am
  • Are
  • Is
  • Was
  • Were
  • Be
  • Being 
  • Been

Otherwise known as state-of-being verbs, the above list acts as markers pointing you to the type of voice you use. Consider the following two sentences with active versus passive voice in mind:

#1 – He was going to get his car looked at by the mechanic. 

#2 – He took his car to the mechanic so he could look at it. 

The first example employs passive voice: He was going. The second example uses active voice: He took his car. 

The difficulty arises in deciding when to use active versus passive voice and how to decide. In today’s captions, journalism, blogging, and articles, professional writers often prefer active voice between the two. But what about when it comes to storytelling? 

When To Use Active Voice

Jerry Jenkins, 21-time New York Times bestselling author, says this: “Avoiding passive voice will set you apart from much of your competition, but even better, it will give your writing a distinct ring of clarity.”

Do you want to stand out in the competition? Do you want to bring clarity to your writing? Choose to use active voice and take the time necessary to learn how to spot passive voice. 

Here is a list of places you should (as a rule) use active voice over passive:

  • Emails
  • Social media captions
  • Blog posts
  • Articles 
  • Nonfiction 
  • Fiction 
  • Speeches 

You probably get the idea! It’s absolutely crucial to master active voice. Consider the following email example:

Hi John,

I am going to be out of town this weekend and I am wondering if you would be able to cover for me. Is there anything I am able to do to help before I leave?

Thank you,

Jane

Now take a look at this email: 

Hi John,

This weekend I’m out of town. Could you cover for me? Let me know if I can help before I leave.

Thank you,

Jane

The first email, passive voice, includes unnecessary words and takes up John’s time. The second email, active voice, states the point in a succinct, yet still polite, manner. 

When Not To Use Active Voice

With the above examples in mind, you may still wonder, “When should I use active versus passive voice?” According to the Rochester Institute of Technology, in their Supporting English Acquisition, they say to use passive voice to: 

#1 – Keep discourse topics in the subject position of sentences

#2 – Avoid mentioning the agent of an action

#3 – Emphasize the receiver of an action

While these are exceptions to the active versus passive voice rule, remember that for creative writing, active voice usually comprises the most accepted form of writing. With the groundwork laid, let’s dive into examples from real writing. 

Active Versus Passive Voice: Examples From Real Writing

As you look through the following examples, pay attention to the examples that grab your attention, the ones you find yourself distracted while reading, and the ones that seem to include too many words. 

#1 – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J. K. Rowling

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.”

Yes, I realize I took an example of passive voice from the series Rowling used to reportedly gross over $1 billion from. So, if you can write books like Rowling and teach a generation to love reading, by all means, use passive voice. 

#2 – Dead Sea Conspiracy, Jerry B. Jenkins

“Conflicted. How else could Nicole Berman describe herself on one of the most pivotal mornings of her life? As the first woman, and certainly the first under the age of forty, to be awarded a permit to serve as lead archaeologist on a dig here, she should have been euphoric.”

Note Jenkins’ use of both active and passive voice. The first main sentence uses active voice. The second uses passive voice: “To be awarded.” However, in this case, passive voice fits due to her earning an award given by others. 

#3 – All Over But The Shoutin’, Rick Bragg

“My mother and father were born in the most beautiful place on earth, in the foothills of the Appalachians along the Alabama-Georgia line. It was a place where gray mists hid the tops of low, deep-green mountains, where redbone and blue tick hounds flashed through the pines and they chased possums into the sacks of old men in frayed overalls…”

While Bragg does use passive voice, the tone of his life story calls for it. His book is a national bestseller for a reason. 

#4 – Fable, Adrienne Young 

“Between the trees, I could see Koy and the others kicking up sand as they pushed off the beach. The skiff slid into the water, and I ran faster, my bare feet finding their way over twisted tree roots and buried rock on the path. I came through the thicket just in time to see the smirk on Koy’s lips as the sail dropped open.”

This first-person, active voice opening grips the reader and draws them into the story.

#5 – Atomic Habits, James Clear

“The fate of British Cycling changed one day in 2003. The organization, which was the governing body for professional cycling in Great Britain, had recently hired Dave Brailsford as its new performance director. At the time, professional cyclist in Great Britain had endured nearly one hundred years of mediocrity.”

This nonfiction, New York Times bestseller mixes both active and passive voice in a way that highlights the stories Clear shares. 

Take Your Action Step Today

The fun part about writing is that you get to make the choice of what’s best for your story, active versus passive voice or a mix of both. Read, read, read as you make your choice to familiarize yourself with both styles.

Writing has rules to follow, but it is subjective. Do your research, make your choice, and then write with boldness. Best wishes on your endeavors! 

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