When you avoid passive voice, your writing is more concise and much clearer because the subject of a sentence performs the action.
On the other hand, in sentences using the passive, the subject is not performing the action of the verb.
In many cases, it means that a reader doesn’t know who or what did something.
If possible, it’s always better to use active voice by changing the subject of a sentence to one that can perform the action of the verb.
Why is passive voice bad in writing?
Passive sentences are usually less engaging for readers because they don’t know who or what is actively performing the action.
The conference was canceled at the last minute.
In the phrase above, we don’t know who canceled the conference.
A quick fix would be to add the operator, by. However, it makes the sentence much longer than necessary.
The conference was canceled at the last minute by the managing director.
The best solution is almost always to use active voice.
The managing director canceled the conference.
Now the sentence is clear, direct, less wordy, and informative.
In most instances, it’s better to avoid passive voice because it is often vague or provides incomplete information.
But passive is not always bad. In certain situations, it might be appropriate to avoid apportioning blame or responsibility, or the actor is unknown.
How to find and fix passive structures
In any writing, it’s always a good idea to do a quick check for passive use.
Then when possible, rewrite sentences in the active voice.
But how do you find passive sentences, and how can you fix them?
Luckily, there are many quite simple ways you can check and correct.
Here are ten ideas that will hopefully help you improve your writing.
1. Search for the word, by
You can do this in any word processor.
Use the find function, and search for all occurrences of the word, by.
Yes, it’s a preposition, but it’s also the operator in passive sentences.
All you need to do is click through to each occurrence and check if it’s a passive sentence.
When you find one, it’s very easy to change. All you need to do is move the operator to the beginning of the sentence.
The castle was built by Henry Dubois in 1768. (Passive)
Henry Dubois built the castle in 1768. (Active)
2. Use the Hemmingway editor
The free Hemingway editor is a favorite among many writers.
But the best feature is its ability to find passive sentences quickly.
All you have to do is check for sentences with a green highlight.
Check each one and see if you can change them to active voice.
3. Use a grammar checker
Most writers use a free or premium grammar checker.
The better ones highlight passive use, but some even offer a one-click change to active voice.
If yours doesn’t, you might want to hunt around for a better tool.
4. Beware of the causative passive
Most passives use the verb to be.
But the causative form uses have or get, and it’s not quite as easy to find.
Here are a few quick examples.
I had my car serviced last week.
He got his laptop repaired under warranty.
She has her teeth checked once a year.
In these sentences, as with the passive, we don’t know who performed the action.
The quick fix is to add a subject before the verb.
The garage serviced my car last week.
Apple repaired his laptop under warranty.
Her dentist checks her teeth once a year.
You might not want to change all occurrences. But it’s worth checking to see if you can make things clearer for readers.
5. Use stronger verbs
The passive uses the verbs be or get, often with a weak action verb.
When you find sentences such as this, using a more powerful verb is usually a good idea.
The three new players were asked to join the team (by the coach).
Changing a sentence like this is easy.
The coach invited the three new players to join the team.
The coach insisted that the three new players join the team.
Rewriting in active form often gives you the opportunity to choose better verbs.
6. Use the imperative
The imperative is always active, so it’s sometimes a good choice to use.
Don’t overuse it, but look for opportunities when appropriate.
The most common use is for requests, commands, or advice.
She was asked to read the report and give her reactions. (Passive)
Read the report and give me your reactions. (Imperative)
You are requested to bring your laptop with you to the meeting. (Passive)
Please bring your laptop with you to the meeting. (Imperative)
7. When to use the passive voice
You can’t avoid passive voice all the time.
In certain contexts, it’s often better to use the passive structure.
It is usually when the actor is clear without mentioning.
The most obvious example is the word born.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in January 1756.
It would be an awkward change to say that his mother bore him.
When the actor is unknown, the passive is usually the best choice.
My flat was burgled twice last year.
In this case, we don’t know who burgled the flat.
But if you tried to change this to an active sentence, it would be repetitive and no more informative.
Burglars burgled my flat twice last year.
One last use is to avoid blame. It is common in business and academic writing when using neutral register.
The long-awaited report was released late last Friday night.
The findings of the research were considered inadequate.
Passive is not always a bad thing. But be careful to use it only when it’s appropriate.
8. Be alert when you proofread
Online and in-built checking tools can help, but they won’t find everything for you.
This is especially true for causative sentences.
Always be on the lookout for all passive forms when you proofread your text.
Once you are aware of why passive is usually a bad choice, problem sentences will be easy to find during the process.
9. What is the purpose of a text?
If you are writing a business report or an academic thesis, what will your readers expect?
In these situations, readers perhaps anticipate hard facts and arguments presented in a more formal register.
So the passive may be more suitable to use in parts of your text.
The market was negatively affected by the inflation statistics for June.
The new vaccine was found to be only partially effective following the clinical trials.
But for most forms of creative writing, the active voice is almost always the better choice.
10. Make it a habit to avoid passive voice
When you discover how easy it is to use active sentences, you will enhance your writing.
If you can make it a habit, all the better because you won’t have to make as many changes to your first draft.
Keep thinking about real subjects and strong verb actions.
Hopefully, these ten tips will help you avoid or remove passive voice more often in your writing.
When you do, your writing will be sharper, less wordy, and more focused.
Yes, there are times when you need it, but it’s probably not as often as you might think.
In most cases, when you find it, you can fix it.
Related reading: The Verb To Get Can Sometimes Be Overused In Writing