Active vs. Passive

How often does an editor or critique partner mark your work “Show don’t tell!”? Passive writing is partly a style issue and partly a grammar one. If you understand the grammatical difference in passive and active writing, you’ll be equipped to correct your passive writing passages.

The active versus passive voice is simple to explain. Active: The subject performs the action. Passive: The subject receives the action. Here are some examples of good writing that are, unfortunately, passive.

Beth felt saddened by the loss of her beloved cat.

After Mrs. Jones was sure all her belongings were safely aboard the train, she found her seat.

He was paid a pitiful salary for the hours required of the job.

To turn these sentences into active writing, search for tell-tale passive words like “was” and “felt.” Then reword. Here are some suggestions for turning the sentences into active writing:

The loss of Beth’s beloved cat saddened her.

After Mrs. Jones verified the staff had loaded all her belongings aboard the train, she found her seat.

He earned a pitiful salary for the hours his job required.

The show-don’t-tell advice goes beyond passive voice. Overuse of adverbs and “felt” are indicators of what some editors call lazy writing. Don’t spoonfeed your readers with sentences like these:

She felt embarrassed that he’d seen her staring at him.

“Where have you been?” he asked angrily.

She was distracted with thoughts of his kiss.

Instead, stretch your writing muscles and craft stronger sentences like these:

Warmth flushed her skin. How embarrasing! He’d caught her staring at him.

“Where have you been?” He glared, his jaw rigid. Then he stomped from the room without awaiting her answer.

Her boss reviewed the quarterly goals, but she couldn’t focus. Memories of last night’s kiss monopolized her every thought.

As an exercise, go though your current writing project and search out passive sentences. Sometimes the passive voice works better and you should keep those sentences. But if they can be reworded, revise each one into an active sentence. Stretch yourself!


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