The Art of Active Voice

Confession: I love dragons.

I have, for a long time. One of my favorite movies growing up was Pete’s Dragon, as a kid I adored Bruce Coville, then I moved on to Anne McCaffrey. I have an entire collection of eastern and western dragons people have given me over the years (I added to this collection on my vacation), I have written multiple novels about dragons and their riders, both good and evil.

So, by all rights, I should adore Christopher Paolini’s Eragon series. It’s Star Wars! With dragons!

Yeah, not so much. Truth is, I can’t get through the friggin’ first chapter. The voice is just SO passive.

Recently, I came across an article on the passive voice, which got me thinking I should be a big old copycat and talk about this phenomenon myself. If you’re starting to get the feeling I don’t come up with anything original on my own, you’d be right. So what is the passive voice?

Dictionary.com says:
One of the two “voices” of verbs ( see also active voice). A verb is in the passive voice when the subject of the sentence is acted on by the verb. For example, in “The ball was thrown by the pitcher,” the ball (the subject) receives the action of the verb, and was thrown is in the passive voice. The same sentence cast in the active voice would be, “The pitcher threw the ball.”
Then dictionary.com writes my entire article for me by adding this:
Note : It is usually preferable to use the active voice wherever possible, because it gives a sense of immediacy to the sentence.
Really, I should let that sentence do all of my work for me and instead go write Fates or RAJ or Greater, but unfortunately for you non-writers out there, I’m going to go into detail on this subject.

A sense of immediacy is a great way to put it, honestly. The art of storytelling is to pull the readers into whatever story you’re telling them, it’s just as simple and as complicated as that. Part of that is the great battle of story vs. craft. You can have a perfectly told story, but if it’s not a good story, it’s crap. And you can tell a perfectly good story badly, and it’s crap. Learning to use the active voice falls under craft. Craft is the art of taking the vision inside your head, bridging the gap to the page, and putting it inside the reader’s heads without that gap being noticeable at all.

Active voice is one of those things that allows you to do that. It has multiple benefits, like giving your characters a sense of action (“He was running” vs. “He ran”), a sense of purpose, and using fewer words more powerfully. Sure, the passive voice can pad your word count like nothing else, but life is not a Nanowrimo novel. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking longer chapters are just better automatically (I know, I know, this is ironic coming from the 10k Chapter Queen herself). Still doubt me? Go read Hemingway (and no, not Shakespeare Hemingway). I’ll wait.

Now, for the second part of this, I’m going to throw you for a loop. Ready? Here’s a paragraph from Fates:
She looked far more relaxed than he'd seen her in a long time, even in the Jeep driving toward Phoenix. Her coat was unzipped over the shirt she'd worn around the CIA and NSA headquarters earlier, though she had changed into jeans and a pair of fuzzy boots to ward off of the cold. There was a light blue scarf around her neck, not tied. In that moment, she didn't look a thing like Superspy Agent Walker, just a woman in her mid-twenties enjoying a beer with friends.
Wait a second, Frea, wait just a darn second. There’s passive voice in that paragraph! What the frak?

Yeah, I didn’t say that you militantly have to use the active voice all the time. Frankly, doing the same thing throughout your entire story?  That's called monotony, and it's about as fun to read as the manual for the washing machine. I'm going to attempt to get deeper into the art of discovering and using your voice (not the thing you sing with!) later on in this series, but for now, you just need to know that it is okay to use the passive voice...sparingly. Some writers will tell you that NO, you should NEVER, ever, ever use the passive voice. I subscribe to the rule of everything in moderation.

Unfortunately for mxpw, I moderate the amount of SWP quite severely.

Take that paragraph above, for instance. "Her coat was unzipped over the shirt she'd worn around the CIA and NSA headquarters earlier." There's ways to make that active voice ("Her coat lay open" would be one), but I thought the word "unzipped" fit the mood I wanted better, so I chose to use the passive voice. It's all a balancing act, and really paying attention, getting good feedback, and noticing the verbs you use will help you with that balance. It won't be a magical overnight change. You'll find yourself falling into bad habits, more likely than not.

But hey, that's what the second draft is for.


  1. First off, whenever you decide to do an online class, I'll sign up. Secondly, I need ducktape to keep all this info in my brain. As a hack writer these tips are invaluable.

    I do have a question. When you do a rewrite, do you just go paragraph by paragraph and edit each section?

  2. Hm, I'm actually not a terribly big rewriter. Some writers swear by the rewrite. Some writers say your first effort is the best one, and why mess with that? The answer to that one is that there's no right, universal answer. The creative process is different for each individual.

    For me, personally, I'm usually a line editor. That means I write the first draft, and then I do what I call tighten. I go through and remove all of my extra modifiers (my biggest offense is the word "just." I literally do a search and find for "just" at the end of every chapter first thing), rewrite some of the dialogue, cut wonky descriptions, that sort of thing. By the time mxpw gets a chapter of Fates, I've read it five or six times through, polishing and tightening on each readthrough. I've also started putting it on my Kindle and making notes on there, as I believe it's easier to read on the page than it is on the screen, and the Kindle saves paper.

    Of course, the other part about this is that it's different because I'm writing serials. The book I wrote that needs to be edited up for publication will actually mean entire sections will need to get rewritten from scratch.

  3. I'm with BDaddyDL. I'll take that class, too.

    I find "voice" fascinating. I've never really considered it's importance until I started paying attention to it. It really does make a huge difference.

    I'm just thankful one of my paragraphs wasn't used as a "don't let this happen to you" example. (:

    Oh, and I'm with you on Eragon. I only got about a third of the way through the first book. I didn't care about what happened to the kid and kinda hoped the dragon would eat him and put us all out of our misery.

  4. Aw, quistie, is that the equivalent to wishing Luke's rope had snapped in the middle of the reactor area, plummeting him and Leia to their deaths? Because I have a friend that would agree that this would make the movies better. ;)

    Voice is one of the absolute hardest things to talk about and describe for me. It's one of those "You get it or you don't" principles. I took a class called "Style in Writing" in college and the professor literally sang Motown at us to describe style: The Way You Do the Thing You Do (Sadly, we were not given extra credit on the exam for using musical references). Adding the concept of voice to that? Yikes. I'm practically shaking in my custom baby seal leather boots over here. However, we'll all soldier through together!

    Glad to see you're posting on the blog! ;)

  5. Thanks! I feel welcome.

    Maybe people find voice difficult because it seems to have a lot to do with grammar. No one likes grammar (except my 8th grade English teacher who made us diagram sentences).

    Also, I can never say anything bad about Star Wars since I was born and raised in George Lucas' home town.

  6. Uh...so is it a good or bad thing to say that I had never before paid any attention to approximately 98% the things you talk about in your "Art of Writing" columns when it came to my own writing? I kinda just read a lot and then simply went with whatever sounded good whenever I wrote stuff. Haha. Damn you, Frea, now I'm gonna end up agonizing over my past work looking for all these basic writer's mistakes!!


    Okie dokie, back to hiding out in my cave...

  7. Speedhoven30.6.11

    Thank you for writing all these tips for us.
    One of the reasons I started writing my own fanfic was to train for my upcoming abitur exams and all of your posts have already helped me a lot.

    Anyways, I've one question about writing dialogue:
    How do I use the expression "you know?" in a line?
    Like is “It’s a lot of responsibility, you know?” written correctly?


  8. You're taking the Abitur? Oh, man, good luck with that!!

    And yes, you're correct: It's a lot of responsibility, you know. That's right.
    Other way to put it: You know, it's a lot of responsibility. This is, of course, when the term "you know" is used not as the main verb of the sentence (I can't think of the term; my brain is muddled). For example, when arguing with somebody and they're denying something, I'd write the response this way: "You know I'm right. Say I'm right." But if they're making just a passing observation, it'd be, "You know, I'm right. I am, you know." Does that make any sense?

    Crystal, it's amazing how much technical stuff we don't think about while writing. Sometimes it's good to have our eyes opened to that. Other times it can really screw you up. I read a writing reference book very early on that swore up and down new writers should never write sequels, as they'll screw up their characters, and I have to this day never been able to pen a sequel because that book gave me a random neurosis to overcome. So be very careful. I try to give more general advice in these posts and let you know that there are exceptions to the rules, that everybody is different and nobody, in the end, can tell you how to write but yourself.

    Handy tip: don't agonize. We all start somewhere, we all have writing skeletons in our closet. Let me tell you sometime about the time I killed a character, decided I liked him too much, and randomly brought him back, claiming his death was faked even though I shot him point-blank in the chest in front of other...major...chara—wait a minute, why the frak does this sound familiar? Now I am puzzled. :)


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