Painting Away Passive Voice

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You have probably heard often that you need to avoid passive voice and replace it with active voice.

Why?

Don’t think of them as passive voice vs active voice sentences. Think of them more as:
  1. Exciting vs Boring sentences.
    Passive voice sentences are *usually* boring sentences. Not always, but it is pretty rare when they are not boring.
  2.  Ambiguous vs accurate sentences.
    Passive voice often doesn’t say who the actor of the verb is. It allows you to be general and inaccurate and to write without detail. The lack of accuracy and detail makes it harder for the reader to imagine and immerse themselves in the story.

Boring and ambiguous sentences are weak sentences. Two simple steps turn a weak sentence into a good sentence.

  1. Locate a passive voice sentence.
  2. Change it to active voice.

Those are two easy steps, however, alone may not improve your sentence enough. Is a “good sentence” good enough for you? I don’t think so. You want your sentence to grab the reader. You want strong sentences. Turning passive voice into a strong sentence can be done by adding one more additional step.

  1. Locate a passive voice sentence.
  2. Change it to active voice.
  3. Paint detail into active voice sentence.

You may find your active voice sentence hard to paint–your active voice sentence may be a bad canvas. Maybe you used the wrong active voice sentence. Let’s alter step 2 and three slightly. This also gives us a simple 4-step process.

  1. Locate a passive voice sentence.
  2. Write two or three replacement active voice sentences.
  3. Paint the active voice sentences or replace them.
  4. Use the strongest sentence.

Now it is time for an example.

Examples

The first step is, of course, to locate a passive voice sentence. Here are two I found in my writing. Cringe…

  • The rope was cut and he was launched into the air toward the castle.
  • I was tired and sleepy.
    Note: Some people argue that this isn’t passive voice. For the purposes of this article, whether to be verbs are or aren’t passive voice is not important.

The second step is to make it active voice, but try a few examples. Here are two ways to actively say the above sentence.

Sentence 1

He cut the rope and the trebuchet launched into the air toward the castle.
Feeling tired, sleepiness overwhelmed me.

Sentence 1

I felt tired and sleepy.
Feeling tired, sleepiness overwhelmed me.

These sentences are better than the passive voice sentences, but not as much better as you might think. You might notice that both the above sentences have moved from passive voice to active voice but are still examples of telling, not showing. They are inaccurate, still boring, and lack detail.

The third step is to paint a picture with these sentences.

  • Identify the person: I (Point of view character)
  • Identify the action: felt
  • Identify the emotion/feeling: tired and sleepy

Now ask some questions.

  • What part of the POV character’s body/face does he/she use to demonstrate the emotion/feeling tired and sleepy?
  • Why does the POV character feel that way?
  • What action does that part of the body do?
  • Ask yourself if that action paints the picture of the original sentence.

OK, let’s write some painted sentences.

Sentence 1

He cut the rope and the trebuchet launched him in the air toward the castle.

He slashed the rope with his bone-hilted dagger, and the trebuchet launched him toward the castle’s parapets.

As I look at the above sentences, it is clear that they still need work. The first one did little more than move from passive to active. The second one added details but still doesn’t make it vivid for the reader.

** Final **
He sliced the rope with his bone-hilted dagger, and the trebuchet catapulted him into the air. His arms flailed as he arched over the castle’s parapets.

While there are a lot of ways to write this, and I can’t say these are the best most active, exciting, and accurately detailed sentences. However, you should see how they are far better in engaging the reader.

Sentence 2

My eyelids dropped and I forced them back open, hoping for just a few more minutes.
My eyelids weighed down and my lower back complained as I asked it to ache for a few minutes longer.

As I look at the above sentences, I like the painting in the first sentence best but I like the second sentence because there are two body parts showing emotion/feeling tired and sleepy. I also liked the idea of heavy eyelids. Well, I’m the writer so I’m going to merge them.

** Final **
My heavy eyelids dropped involuntarily until I forced them back open. My lower back complained as I asked it to ache for a few minutes longer.

I won’t claim this is the best sentence–actually two sentences–for replacing “I was tired” but the sentences are strong sentences. They definitely paint the picture. The reader will see the character’s eyes drop, feel the ache in his/her back as her/she continues to do whatever it is he/she has been doing for too long.

Now go forth and paint away passive voice yourself.

Exercise

Try it on your own. Here is a sentence.

I was running hard.

Please post your painted active voice sentence.

One Comment

Leave a reply on "Painting Away Passive Voice"

Painting Away Passive Voice | J. Abram Barneck

Painting Away Passive Voice

Tags

No tags :(

Share it

You have probably heard often that you need to avoid passive voice and replace it with active voice.

Why?

Don’t think of them as passive voice vs active voice sentences. Think of them more as:
  1. Exciting vs Boring sentences.
    Passive voice sentences are *usually* boring sentences. Not always, but it is pretty rare when they are not boring.
  2.  Ambiguous vs accurate sentences.
    Passive voice often doesn’t say who the actor of the verb is. It allows you to be general and inaccurate and to write without detail. The lack of accuracy and detail makes it harder for the reader to imagine and immerse themselves in the story.

Boring and ambiguous sentences are weak sentences. Two simple steps turn a weak sentence into a good sentence.

  1. Locate a passive voice sentence.
  2. Change it to active voice.

Those are two easy steps, however, alone may not improve your sentence enough. Is a “good sentence” good enough for you? I don’t think so. You want your sentence to grab the reader. You want strong sentences. Turning passive voice into a strong sentence can be done by adding one more additional step.

  1. Locate a passive voice sentence.
  2. Change it to active voice.
  3. Paint detail into active voice sentence.

You may find your active voice sentence hard to paint–your active voice sentence may be a bad canvas. Maybe you used the wrong active voice sentence. Let’s alter step 2 and three slightly. This also gives us a simple 4-step process.

  1. Locate a passive voice sentence.
  2. Write two or three replacement active voice sentences.
  3. Paint the active voice sentences or replace them.
  4. Use the strongest sentence.

Now it is time for an example.

Examples

The first step is, of course, to locate a passive voice sentence. Here are two I found in my writing. Cringe…

  • The rope was cut and he was launched into the air toward the castle.
  • I was tired and sleepy.
    Note: Some people argue that this isn’t passive voice. For the purposes of this article, whether to be verbs are or aren’t passive voice is not important.

The second step is to make it active voice, but try a few examples. Here are two ways to actively say the above sentence.

Sentence 1

He cut the rope and the trebuchet launched into the air toward the castle.
Feeling tired, sleepiness overwhelmed me.

Sentence 1

I felt tired and sleepy.
Feeling tired, sleepiness overwhelmed me.

These sentences are better than the passive voice sentences, but not as much better as you might think. You might notice that both the above sentences have moved from passive voice to active voice but are still examples of telling, not showing. They are inaccurate, still boring, and lack detail.

The third step is to paint a picture with these sentences.

  • Identify the person: I (Point of view character)
  • Identify the action: felt
  • Identify the emotion/feeling: tired and sleepy

Now ask some questions.

  • What part of the POV character’s body/face does he/she use to demonstrate the emotion/feeling tired and sleepy?
  • Why does the POV character feel that way?
  • What action does that part of the body do?
  • Ask yourself if that action paints the picture of the original sentence.

OK, let’s write some painted sentences.

Sentence 1

He cut the rope and the trebuchet launched him in the air toward the castle.

He slashed the rope with his bone-hilted dagger, and the trebuchet launched him toward the castle’s parapets.

As I look at the above sentences, it is clear that they still need work. The first one did little more than move from passive to active. The second one added details but still doesn’t make it vivid for the reader.

** Final **
He sliced the rope with his bone-hilted dagger, and the trebuchet catapulted him into the air. His arms flailed as he arched over the castle’s parapets.

While there are a lot of ways to write this, and I can’t say these are the best most active, exciting, and accurately detailed sentences. However, you should see how they are far better in engaging the reader.

Sentence 2

My eyelids dropped and I forced them back open, hoping for just a few more minutes.
My eyelids weighed down and my lower back complained as I asked it to ache for a few minutes longer.

As I look at the above sentences, I like the painting in the first sentence best but I like the second sentence because there are two body parts showing emotion/feeling tired and sleepy. I also liked the idea of heavy eyelids. Well, I’m the writer so I’m going to merge them.

** Final **
My heavy eyelids dropped involuntarily until I forced them back open. My lower back complained as I asked it to ache for a few minutes longer.

I won’t claim this is the best sentence–actually two sentences–for replacing “I was tired” but the sentences are strong sentences. They definitely paint the picture. The reader will see the character’s eyes drop, feel the ache in his/her back as her/she continues to do whatever it is he/she has been doing for too long.

Now go forth and paint away passive voice yourself.

Exercise

Try it on your own. Here is a sentence.

I was running hard.

Please post your painted active voice sentence.

One Comment

Leave a reply on "Painting Away Passive Voice"