Saturday, August 27, 2011

Writing Tips: Active v.s. Passive Voice by Stephanie Burkhart

My son Joe with one of his favorite 4RV books,
"Spider in our Mailbox."

As writers, we should always be on the lookout for active v.s. passive voice. For me, this can be a challenge at times. Passive voice can sneak into your paragraphs in the blink of an eye, and before you know it, you've written a story that will put someone to sleep.

Here's some tips on keeping your writing active:

Remember, using an active voice keeps your writing lively and engaging. In active voice, the subject acts.


Alyssa raced up the steps.
Miguel skimmed the apps on his phone.

These sentences are direct and make it clear what's going on.

When a sentence is passive, the subject was acted upon and not an agent of action. (It's all about the action, you see –wink-)

Passive examples:

Alyssa was winded after running up the steps.
Miguel was frustrated when he couldn't find the app he wanted on the phone.

Let's face it – the above sentences are dull. There's no energy in them. They don't engage the reader. They "tell," don't "show."

Some things you can do:

1. Put the work down for a couple of hours then pick it up again looking at it with a fresh set of eyes.

2. Go through each sentence.

3. "was" is a big clue that you might have used passive voice. (While there are occasions when "was" is used in active voice, it's usually a tip that you've used it in a passive context. Does your sentence "tell," as opposed to "show?")

4. Tighten up the passages once you find them. Consult a thesaurus for alternate word choices.


Alyssa placed her hands on her knees and drew in long, deep breaths.
Miguel frowned his frustration when he didn't find his app.

Both the retooled sentences are direct and make it clear to the reader who is doing what.

Active voice is simple and concise. It engages the reader and by engaging the reader, you keep them hooked.

Bio: Stephanie Burkhart's 4RV Release, "The Giving Meadow" is about a caterpillar that travels through a meadow making friends and learning about caring for others. She works for LAPD as a 911 Dispatcher and lives in Southern California. Born and raised in New Hampshire, her favorite football team is the New England Patriots.

5 Stars, Midwest Book Review
Colorful illustrations add just the right touch to this gentle heartwarming story about the transformative power of sharing.

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  1. I like how you used a picture of your son with a 4RV book. Thanks for promoting our children's books as you do.

    You give a concise article about active vs passive voice, a message that writers need to know and to be reminded to use.

  2. Vivian, Joe enjoys the books and he's at the age where he's learning to read. 4RV has a great selection of children's books and I use a bunch in my sunday preschool that I teach.

    Active/Passive voice is a challenge I will endeavor to master so I thought I'd tackle it head on.


  3. This is one of the things that is hardest for me to do as I write and revise a picture book manuscript. This article and the earlier one from Vivian are extremely helpful. Thanks Steph *:)

  4. Active vs. passive? Them's fightin' words!

    Actually, I agree with 99% of this. There are times when passive voice is useful, but it is too easily OVERused and inappropriately used. Wait, sorry--amateur writers too often overuse passive voice and use it inappropriately.

    If you can say the same thing more effectively or concisely with active voice than with passive voice, it is to be preferred. Wait--if you can...oh, heck, just DO IT! :)

  5. Thanks for stopping by, Ginger and Holly.
    Exceptions exist to all most everything. Yes, at times a writer must use state-of-being verbs. Yes, at times a writer has no choice but to use passive voice. However, active voice should be used whenever possible, even if one has to rewrite.

  6. Good review, Steph. Sometimes we all need to be reminded about active v. passive.

  7. I always enjoy your family pictures, Steph. Joe is a cutie.

    Thanks for the reminder about passive v. active - I'll check my own writing and tighten it if necessary.

  8. Strangely I found that giving up the passive voice in my writing, helped in speaking and living. It must affect the brain. ;)

  9. Great picture! And, useful information on passive and active writing.