Passive Voice

Whether I’m reading a book proposal, working with a client to improve his or her writing, or editing a manuscript, I come across the same issue–passive voice.

Passive voice is the voice of government, business, and academia. Why? Passive voice shows no ownership, thus no accountability. When’s the last time you got excited about reading the tax code, employment policies, or your professor’s latest position paper?

If you’re wondering whether your own writing falls into the passive voice abyss, check your verbs. Do you use verbs such as is, are, was, were,  have, had (forms of “to be”)? These verbs offer the best clue that you need to revisit your writing if you want your book (or other writing) professionally published.

Think back to your grammar training. Recall what verbs do–they show action done by the subject. Passive verbs are, as labeled, passive–no action.

See the difference between active and passive voice in this example:

  1. I noticed you came back from lunch a little late today.
  2. It was noticed you were late coming back from lunch.

In the first sentence, we clearly see who noticed what. In the second, there’s no ownership. The first sentence shows action, while the second sentence is not only boring, it’s not easy to read.

Most word processing programs offer a tool to help you determine your use of passive voice. I’m not saying you should never use passive voice. In fact, you should use it at times. Too much action and your reader may feel too much energy and chaos in your writing.

I am suggesting you go back through your writing and determine how many passive verbs you use. Then, see how many of them you can change to active verbs. Once you’ve made the changes, re-read your writing and you’ll find it more enjoyable to read (as, I suspect, your readers will too).


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