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When to Avoid Passive Voice

Last week we reviewed what passive voice is. Here‘s why it‘s not the best thing to use in your writing.

Passive Voice

The opposite of the passive voice is the active voice. A sentence in the active voice is structured traditionally: Subject, verb, object. Beth stubbed her toe. John loves pie. Harry hates country music.

Using the passive voice instead of the active voice weakens the sentences, and makes them less graceful. The toe was stubbed by Beth. Pie is loved by John. Country music is hated by Harry. Awkward, right?

When the agent that is performing the action is the most important part of the sentence, use the active voice. Beth, John, and Harry are all agents in these examples, and so using the active voice is the way to go.


Take fifteen minutes and describe a typical morning for a character. Use the active voice to describe their daily routine. Post your practice in the comments, and leave comments on your fellow writers’ work.

About Liz Bureman

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

  • LarryBlumen

    The room was entered at approximately 1 PM by Mr. A. Backwards. The floor was traversed by him to the vicinity of a desk, opposite the door. A drawer was then opened and a gun withdrawn. Several bullets were also withdrawn. The bullets were inserted by Mr. Backwards into the gun. The gun was then pointed at the door by him and was fired three times. Mr. Backwards own body was entered by the bullets, just below his heart. Several hours later, he was found dead by a cleaning woman. A statement made by her to the police was published in the paper the next day: “When Mr. Backwards was first seen my me, a look of surprise was on his face.”

    • Passive voice was learned by Larry.


      • LarryBlumen

        Not to mention Mr. Backwards. (:

        • Yoda

          Write good Larry does. ~Yoda Twain

          • LarryBlumen

            Yoda thanks—good Larry

      • LarryBlumen

        The realization was slow to dawn on Larry about the sly rejoinder posted by Katie.

    • Marianne Vest

      I like that. I think you could send that to a experimental mag and get it published.

      • LarryBlumen

        Thanks, Marianne. I’ll give that some thought, after my other, already submitted experimental stuff gets rejected!

        • Marianne Vest

          I think experimental is the hardest to get out there. I’ve never had anything published experimental or not, but I never even can figure out how to submit the experimental ones that I have done. Look on Duotrope (if you aren’t already on there). Also look a the Tin House Blog PLOTTO Contest that is on Wednesdays. It’s cool, not quite as experimental as your piece but I think they might like it.

  • John stretched his legs against the mattress as his hands stretched above his head. He repeatedly flexed his hands into fists, then relaxed them. Twisting his legs over the edge of the bed, he pushed himself out of bed with a grunt.

    He padded into the kitchen and turned on the coffee maker, then switched on the television as he walked past on his way to the bathroom for a shower. He stopped abruptly and stared at the screen when he heard his name mentioned by the news anchor.

    “Tom Goodman is being sought in connection with the disappearance of his long-time girlfriend, Betty Lou Huu, a senior attending clown college at state.”

    Tilting his head and narrowing his eyes, Tom wondered what the television newscaster was talking about. “Betty is out of town visiting family,” he mumbled to the TV. A knock at the door pulled his attention away from the television. He stared at the door as if he could see through it and know who stood on the other side.

    “Just a minute,” he called out and grabbed a towel from the hall closet. Wrapping it around his waist, he walked to the door and opened it. There, in full clown regalia, stood the dean of the clown college. Tom’s eyes gazed at the dean from under furrowed eyebrows, then he asked. “Can I help you?” It was all he could do to keep himself from laughing.

    “I was hoping you would let me in rather than have this discussion out here on the lawn.” The top clown’s left arm made a wide arc indicating the lawn and the many lawn ornaments Tom had placed there. “If must be difficult to navigate a lawn mower around all those obsticles,” he said when he turned back to Tom.

    “Yes, it is. You’re pretty smart…for a clown.”

    “That’s a mistake many non-clowns make. We’re funny, not stupid.”

    “Well, of you’re that smart, maybe you can tell me where Betty Lous is.”

    “Actually, I was hoping you could tell me…”

    Tom slammed the door, leaving the head clown standing on his front step and turned to get himself a cup of coffee. As he walked into the kitchen he saw the clock and realized his fifteen minutes of morning ritual was up, so he turned…

    That’s my 15 minute exercise. It’s too bad I ran out of time because the rest of this story is a real page turner.

    • Marianne Vest

      That was really good. Did you finish it? I’d love to see it if you did.

    • Other than the fact that his name changed halfway through, this is a great practice. If Tom “knew” Betty Lou was home visiting her family, why did he ask the question first?


  • Marianne Vest

    She woke up after dawn and panicked. If she didn’t hurry she would be late to work. Throwing the covers back and shoving the dog to the floor, Joan fought her way out of bed. She hurried to the bathroom, thinking about what was on the agenda for the day at the office. She couldn’t remember what she was supposed to be working on. What was due? Was it a report on a new client or did she have to teach trainees?

    She was always running behind. She took a quick shower, put on some foundation, mascara, and lip gloss, and then headed for the closet. It was while she was standing in the closet looking at jeans and teeshirts rather than dresses and suits, that she remembered. She didn’t work anymore. She’d been retired for two weeks.

    Then she heard her husband laughing. He walked toward her with a mug of coffee in his hand.

    “You did it again didn’t you?” he said.

    “Senile already,” she said, and she laughed at what she hoped was a joke.

    • I like the switching between passive and active voices. In a real piece it’d be clunky but in the practice it kept me on my toes.


      • Marianne Vest

        It seems to link itself to tense when I just write and don’t think about it. The stuff coming ahead for her (future tense) is almost impossible to write in active voice for me with this POV. It’s definitely all linked. Clunky is definitely a good way to describe it. I think if it was something to keep, I would just write it out and then look at the voice, tense, POV. Writing seems so easy until you do it.

  • No, I didn’t finish Marianne, maybe I will later tonight.

    • Marianne Vest

      Let me know if you do. I really would love to read it, and if you want me to give comments I will. Don’t you submit things to magazines sometimes?

  • Yvette Carol

    I sure miss being able to post replies directly beneath people’s comments (sigh!). Never mind….
    Marianne, the flow of your piece seemed effortless to me. Angelo, sweet start to a real page turner. I agree with Marianne, you should finish that and submit it to a perhaps a detective zine or similar. Obstacles is spelt with an a though.

    Okay here goes;

    She jumped out of bed. Had there been a knock at the door? Fumbling in the dark and the cold she swept the dressing gown around her. Floorboards creaked. She tripped, running down the stairs. The dried flowers on the wall smelled musty. Coats and umbrellas in the stand obscured her view of the porch.
    Then she saw it. A shadow darkened half the doorway. She slowed down a little.
    Pausing on the last few steps she called out, ‘Who is it?’
    ‘Collection service ma’am. Open up please I have a letter for you.’
    Hand’ to her mouth she backed up a step. Her eyes squinted. She looked around. Damn, John still wasn’t back yet.
    The grandfather clock chimed. And she yelped.
    Knock, knock, knock.
    ‘Ma’am? Open up please.’
    ‘Um, no, I can’t,’ she said, hesitating, thinking, ‘I’m on my own, my father isn’t back yet.’
    Then, ‘Well, give this to him would you?’
    A brown manilla envelope, beak first, appeared through the slot in the door.

  • Valerie Strawmier

    I love this! I read a book called How to Swat the Killer Be’s, lol–it was a creative twist on this very topic. Thank you for sharing and I’m glad I subscribed! <a href="http://misswordy.com/choosing-the-right-words/"choosetherightwords

    Valerie Strawmier

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