Write Your Novel : Passive vs. Active Voice

When editing someone’s work, I often come across areas that are written entirely in passive voice. If it is used sparingly and done for effect, there is nothing wrong with this – but that is rarely the case.

What is the difference between passive and active voice? The contrast is so subtle that most people miss it. Take these two sentences, one active and one passive:

Active: John drove the car. (John is the subject of the sentence and the person (thing) performing the action.)

Passive: The car was driven by John. (The subject is the car but the person doing the action is not the focus of the sentence.)

How can you tell if your writing is passive or active? One easy way is to find all the places where you use the words “was” or “were”. No, these aren’t always indicative of passive voice, but they are the most common pointers. Look at each sentence where these words occur. Can the sentence be rewritten in a stronger, more active way? Once you’ve cleaned up as much of the passive voice as you can, it’s time to go on to other problems.

Take the following passive sentences. Can you rewrite to make active?

Four men were seated at a table in the room. Cards were scattered on the table. The room was lit by an oil lamp casting shadows.


One suggestion: Four men sat at the table scattered with cards. An oil lamp cast shadows in the dimly lit room.


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