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Woman reading a boring book written in passive voice

I’ll get straight to the point: “passive voice” is a terrible writing habit.

Don’t believe me? Think back to some of the books you’ve read throughout your life.

Have you ever picked up a book that sounded like this?

Pesticides were discovered in 80% of market fruit by researchers at NYU. Chemical analysis kits were used on all the produce over the course of 2 weeks, and the results were conclusive. The pesticides were known carcinogens. During the subsequent investigation, lasting several months, more than 20 local farms were subjected to the same chemical analysis.

Aside from the fact that most people don’t consider pesticides a riveting topic, passive voice is abundant throughout this paragraph.

It can be tough to recognize passive voice because it’s grammatically correct, and it reads like your average textbook. But that’s the problem—it reads like a boring textbook.

People don’t read boring books.

Look what happens when you rewrite that whole section into active voice:

In the spring of 2010, Stanley Wainwright, Martha Higgins, and Jeremy Gideon assaulted a local grocery store. They weren’t gang members or terrorists. They were researchers from NYU. Armed with chemical kits, they tested all the fruit sold that morning and discovered pesticides on 80% of it. Cancer-causing pesticides. Horrified, they launched a deeper investigation. Over the course of the summer, they infiltrated more than 20 local farms.

Now, the opening lines tell a story, and the researchers are real people. People who are doing things—assaulting grocery stores, testing fruit, launching investigations, etc.

Suddenly, pesticides are much more interesting.

Admittedly, I added a few storytelling techniques too. But that’s part of the magic of active voice: once you start using it, it’s easy to make things even more interesting.

In this post, I’ll dive deeper into why passive voice is bad, showing you how to fix it in your writing as well as how to use it to tell a good story.

But before I do, let me say this:

If you’re still writing your first draft, don’t worry about any of this yet. Just write your book.

But if you’re in the editing stage and want to know how to recognize passive voice, how to avoid it, and how to fix it, this post is for you.

How to Recognize Passive Voice

Passive voice is bad—it avoids responsibility

Passive voice is a way of denying responsibility. It’s a way to confuse people and leave out information on purpose (so they might not even notice what’s missing).

“Things were discovered. Kits were used. Farms were investigated.”

Who did all those things? Nobody knows.

Maybe you don’t even know.

That’s the first way to recognize passive voice. Look for the places where you were trying to write around things you don’t know. You probably felt pretty awkward doing it, right?

You’ll find a lot of passive voice in those sections.

“The letters were opened. The flag was raised. The orders were issued.”

“Something was somethinged.”

You can always recognize passive voice if you look for that type of sentence construction. There might be a lot of other stuff around it, but that format’s always hiding in there somewhere:

“At sunrise every morning, the flag was raised by the firehouse rookie.”

There are thousands of ways to fix a passive voice sentence—literally thousands—and they’re all better:

“As the firehouse rookie, I had to raise the flag every morning at sunrise.”

“At sunrise every morning, the rookie raised the flag. The first few months I was at the firehouse, that rookie was a shy kid named Billy Jones.”

“In a firehouse, the day starts at sunrise. The rookie drags his butt out of bed to raise the flag, and everybody else is pretty much praying there won’t be another call before the shift change.”

I’ll go into a lot more depth about fixing passive voice later. For now, notice how none of the fixes sound like a textbook. They all sound like somebody’s talking to you.

We hardly ever use passive voice when we’re just talking. Keep that in mind when you’re looking for it in your writing.

But sometimes … no, it’s still bad

If you read other articles about passive voice, many of them will say it’s okay to use passive voice in certain cases. But I’ll tell you a secret:

They’re all just parroting what some English teacher told them a long time ago, and it’s not true.

You don’t need passive voice.

I’ll prove it with the 4 examples you’ll see most often—ones that other people will tell you are okay.

1. When you don’t know who did the thing you’re talking about

An English teacher might tell you it’s okay to use passive voice if you don’t know who did whatever it is you’re writing about. Here are some common examples people will try to give you:

  • The bank was robbed on Tuesday.
  • The men were attacked by an unknown assailant.
  • The phone lines were cut.

Now, if you can do some research and find out who actually did it, that’s an easy fix. But sometimes nobody knows. Maybe at the time you’re writing, it’s still a mystery.

That’s okay. You can still rewrite every one of them as an active sentence.

  • Then, on Tuesday, somebody robbed the bank.
  • Some guy jumped them out of nowhere.

The best fix for the third one, the example that the phone lines “were cut,” might depend on the rest of the story. Here are a few options, depending on the situation:

  • The phone was dead.
  • Someone had cut the line.
  • I picked up the phone … nothing. No dial tone. Had someone cut the line?

Every one of those is more interesting than the original.

2. When the doer is irrelevant

Common examples:

  • The Empire State Building was completed in 1931.
  • The dancer was educated in Paris.
  • The computer was refurbished.

Other articles would tell you that it doesn’t matter who built the Empire State Building, who taught the dancer, or who refurbished the computer.

That’s arguable. But even if they’re right, you can still rewrite every one of these passive sentences to be more engaging.

  • Those 3,000 workers finished the Empire State Building in 1931.
  • The dancer studied in Paris.

The last one is a bit tougher. We probably don’t know who refurbished the computer, and the fact that someone did probably isn’t the point of the story.

So, let’s do more with it and help the story along.

  • I bought a refurbished computer in 2007.

That’s not bad. At least now we feel like a story is coming, right? But let’s do even better:

  • I didn’t have a lot of money, but I knew my daughter needed a computer. So I scraped together enough cash to buy a refurbished one from some random guy on eBay.

Or, here’s a different story:

  • When I started the company, all I had to work with was a desk from Goodwill, a chair I literally found on the sidewalk, and a refurbished computer from the pawnshop across the street.

I’ll walk you through changing passive voice into active voice in a later section. For now, I just want to show you that you don’t need passive voice, no matter what other people might try to tell you.

3. When your focus is on the object of the sentence

This might be the worst one yet. Your focus should be on the reader, and the subject of the sentence should be whatever it needs to be to engage them.

Woman reading a book

If there’s one actual rule in writing, that’s it: write for the reader.

Here’s the kind of example people often use for “good” passive voice:

  • Pesticides were discovered in 80% of supermarket fruit by researchers at NYU.

Sound familiar?

An English teacher would argue the pesticides are the most important thing here, so they should be the grammatical subject of the sentence.

That’s ridiculous. I took that sentence from a writing blog that made that exact claim, and I rewrote it into active voice for the introduction to this post.

4. When you want to be vague about responsibility

This is the worst thing about passive voice and the main reason why I hate it.

Don’t do it.

The most common examples are a lot like the ones we’ve already covered.

  • The bank was robbed.
  • The men were attacked.
  • Mistakes were made.

But there’s one specific situation where Authors use passive voice the most—and it’s because of this very reason.

Non-fiction Authors write about their own experiences. Whether your book is a memoir or it’s teaching other people how to do something, you’re going to use your own experience to help other people.

But it’s really hard to write about times when you feel like you failed. It’s terrifying to put yourself out there as an Author, and that fear can get the best of you.

You’ll start writing things like:

  • The office started to get disorganized.
  • A few invoices got lost.
  • Orders were starting to go out late.

Don’t do that. Instead, face your fear head-on, and remember why you’re writing your book—to help your readers. Be brutally honest in your writing. Own your mistakes, and help your readers do better.

I hired too many people too fast, and I had no idea how to organize it all. The office was a disaster. I didn’t put any real systems in place, and we started losing invoices. We paid a lot of our vendors late, which really hurt our reputation. We were shipping orders out late, too. My dream had become a nightmare. But I didn’t know how to fix it. I went to bed feeling sick every night, and I woke up feeling sick every morning. I was going to lose everything. It was just a matter of time.

That’s another way to recognize passive voice and a good place to look for it: when you’re writing about things you feel embarrassed about.

  • It got disorganized. (Nobody did it. It just happened.)
  • Invoices got lost. (By nobody in particular.)
  • Orders went out late. (But it wasn’t our fault.)

Changing those passive constructions into active voice will make your writing a thousand times better. It will hold your readers’ attention all the way through your book.

How to Fix Passive Voice in Your Writing

1. Always have an “actor” in your mind

One of the best ways to fix passive voice is to figure out why you’re using it in the first place. Are you:

  • Not sure who the actor is?
  • Nervous about what readers might think of you?
  • Something else?

Not sure who the actor is

If you’re not sure who the actor is, ask yourself whether you need to do more research. That stops a lot of bad writing before it happens. Look up the person’s name or get whatever details you need.

That said, if you’re on a roll during your draft phase and you don’t want to break for research, then don’t. Just write. Once you get in the habit of writing in active voice, you’ll find tricks that work for you in that situation.

For example, you might write something like:

  • In the spring of 2010, NAME, NAME, and NAME assaulted a local grocery store.
  • THE TEAM finally made its first sale almost a year later.

Then, when you’re done with your draft, you can look up what you need and fill those in with actual names.

Nervous about what readers might think of you

This is one of the toughest things about writing, and literally every Author goes through it—all of them. I’ve written New York Times bestsellers, and I still go through it every time.

Because it’s so universal, I’ve written a whole post on facing your fears as an Author. Do what you have to do to confront those fears, and then be brutally honest in your writing.

Write for the people you’re trying to help. Think about how much you want to make a difference in their lives, and keep that in the front of your mind. Make your writing about them, not you.

Something else

Sometimes, it isn’t either of those things. Maybe you’ve just read a ton of textbooks, and your rough draft came out with a lot of passive voice. That’s okay. That’s what editing is for.

For every use of passive voice you find, ask yourself who the story is really about? You? Your team? Someone else? Who’s the main character of the anecdote?

Let’s look at one of the above examples, step by step:

  • The computer was refurbished.

Again, you probably don’t know who refurbished it, and the fact that it’s refurbished probably isn’t the point of the story. So, here’s the question to ask yourself:

  • Why is it important to tell the reader that it’s refurbished?

If it isn’t important at all—it’s just a detail you threw in as part of your vomit draft—no problem. Delete the sentence and move on.

But if the reason was to show the reader how little money you had when you started your company, that’s great. That’s the heart of good writing: to help readers relate to the story.

Focus on that. What else about the new company paints that picture? Maybe:

  • you got your desk from Goodwill
  • you found your chair on the sidewalk
  • you bought the computer at a pawnshop
  • the pawnshop was across the street, which tells you something about the neighborhood

Put all that together, and you get the example I gave up above:

  • When I started the company, all I had to work with was a desk from Goodwill, a chair I literally found on the sidewalk, and a refurbished computer from the pawnshop across the street.

When you approach the problem of fixing passive voice in the right way, asking yourself why the reader will care, the rest of the storytelling often comes naturally.

2. Stop trying to sound smart (and just tell the truth)

One of the problems with passive voice showing up so much in textbooks is that people start thinking it sounds “smart.” And then they want to sound smart. So they copy all that bad writing.

Don’t try to sound smart. Just write truthfully, in your own voice.

Engaging your reader isn’t about sounding smart. It’s about being honest and vulnerable.

Seriously. People connect immediately to writing that’s honest and vulnerable.

If you want people to love and recommend your book, it’s more important to connect to them than to try to sound a certain way. In fact, connecting is the only thing that matters.

Besides, you’ll have a much easier time writing if you stop trying to sound like someone else and just write however you naturally think.

3. Use active verbs

It’s a lot harder to switch into passive voice if you’re using active verbs—and a lot easier to notice it in your editing.

Passive voice sits back and waits for things to happen. That’s why it’s called passive voice. The problem is right in the name.

Active voice (and active verbs) go out and do things.

  • build
  • investigate
  • transform
  • compete
  • connect

Now, an English teacher would try to get on me about that. They’d tell you almost any verb can fall victim to active voice, and that’s true.

  • The bank was investigated for fraud.

That’s passive voice. But the benefit of an active verb is that it helps you ask the right question: who’s doing the investigating?

  • The FBI opened an official fraud investigation.

If you noticed that the bank isn’t in that sentence, good. Sometimes the best way to fix passive voice is to fix things around it too, using the context of the other sentences to help you.

  • Thousands of customers lost their life savings. The bank shut down. The FBI opened an official fraud investigation.

It’s short, quick, sharp, and easy to read.

4. Edit it out later (for now, just write)

I’ve said it before, but I’m going to say it again because I can’t stress it enough:

If your natural writing style uses a lot of passive voice, don’t try to fix it while you’re writing.

Don’t edit yourself at all while you’re writing your first draft. You’ll only slow yourself down if you try to change your style while you’re still getting your ideas down. Instead, go back and fix it later.

Once you have your rough draft finished, that’s when you start editing yourself. Do as much as you reasonably can in your self-editing pass, and then hire a great editor.