Why Should You Use Active Verbs?

A few posts ago, I started a series on critiquing others' writing by outlining the areas my writing critique group excels in when providing feedback.  This series has covered the following topics so far: point of view (first and third, multiple, and omniscient) and word repetition.

Today, I want to discuss active versus passive verbs, sometimes referred to as active and passive voice.

What Makes a Verb Active?

Active verbs put the reader into the story's action.  They experience everything as it occurs.  When the verb is active, the subject of the sentence performs the action.  When the verb is passive, the action is performed by the object of the verb, so the action becomes indirect.
The easiest way to understand this is to look at an example.  Here's a short passage from Southern Heat by David Burnsworth:

A patrol car headed for me, and I jerked my hands up in reaction.  It skidded to a stop a few yards away.  Doors swung open in unison.  Two men stepped out and trained their weapons on me.  “Police!  Freeze!”
One of them moved out of my line of vision.

Do you feel the action in the moment? The patrol car speeds toward the first person character, Brack.  He jerks his hands up in reaction.  The subjects (patrol car and I) perform these actions.

What Does Passive Voice Look Like?

In passive voice, the verb includes a helping verb (was, were, have, would, etc.) and the object of the verb performs the action.

  • I was paid by the store.  (passive)
  • The store paid me. (active)

The passive verb is not exciting.

Odds are you learned to do this while in school.  Your teachers gave writing assignments with a required word count.  In order to increase your word counts, you used passive verbs.  (In the example above, the passive sentence has six words while the active only has four words.)  The educational approach to word counts backfired by teaching you how to write boring sentences.

Once we move into the real world and write creatively or for business, we find it difficult to break this habit.  Many professionals maintain an inaccurate impression that the passive voice sounds more professional.  It doesn't.

Imagine if you read sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, page after page of sentences using the passive verb.  You would put the book, or document, down! It's boring.

As a side note, the example above uses the past tense (paid, was paid), but even with tenses that require a helping verb, such as past perfect, there is an active and passive approach to the verb:
  • I had been paid by the store. (passive)
  • The store had paid me.  (active) 


How Do You Remove Passive Verbs?

If you look at the two examples above, the difference is the placement of the noun performing the action.  The passive sentence becomes an active sentence by flipping the sentence over. Remember, in a passive sentence, the action is performed by the object.

Quick! Which voice appears in my last sentence?  Who is performing?

Hopefully, you recognized a passive construction.  What would the sentence look like if we reverse the subject and object?  "Remember, in a passive sentence, the object performs the action."

See how easy that was?

In most cases, a reversal will work, but if it becomes too complicated, don't push it. It's OK to have a small percentage of passive verbs in your writing.

The Bottom Line

The key to active vs passive verbs is identifying who is doing the action:  the subject which is active or the object which is passive.  The good news is Word's Grammar Checker can help you with this, but double-check its suggestions.  Sometimes, Word gets confused.

No matter how you identify passive and active verbs, keep in mind that your reader will enjoy and participate in the story more if you stick to active verbs.

Ultimately, that's our goal.  Keep the reader reading.

Special thanks to David Burnsworth for allowing me to use a passage from his book!


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