“Her steps were tentative. Fiona wasn’t sure she could avoid the captain’s anger, if he showed up. However, the anticipation of viewing the sky with Jacob who always looked out for her was new emotional territory. She followed him.” (43 words)
What’s wrong with that paragraph? Three of the four sentences are passive. Active voice is always preferred over passive, because we can see the action as we read and it is more dynamic.
How do we identify passive voice to change it? A writer can identify passive voice in a sentence by looking for “to be” verbs, like “was,” “were,” “had been,” or “would get to be.” Below see the passive sentence, an improved one with an active verb. It reads more naturally and the reader can see what kind of action is in play.
Then see a better version to add clarity or reads even more naturally from at least one writer’s viewpoint.
- PASSIVE: Her steps were tentative.
- ACTIVE: She trod forward.
- BETTER: She trod behind Jacob with caution.
- PASSIVE: Fiona wasn’t sure she could avoid the captain’s anger, if he showed up.
- ACTIVE: Fiona did not know whether she could avoid angering the captain, if he showed up.
- BETTER: Fiona did not know if she could avoid Captain Best’s anger, if he saw her again.
- PASSIVE: The anticipation of viewing the sky with a man who always looked out for her was new emotional territory.
- ACTIVE: New emotional territory frightened Fiona as she anticipated viewing the sky with a man who always looked out for her.
- BETTER: She did not know how she should act when she stood alone next to Jacob viewing the sky.
“She trod behind Jacob with caution. Fiona, however, did not know if she could avoid Captain Best’s anger, if he caught her again. In addition, she didn’t know how she should act when she stood alone next to Jacob viewing the sky. She decided to follow him to the bow anyway.” (55 words)
SUMMARY: Though the word count increases, it now reads more clearly and naturally. We use passive voice in conversation, so it sounds natural. However, when read in sentence after sentence and page after page, it becomes monotonous.
With a M.Ed. in adult education, Rhonda Wiley-Jones is a professional training and staff development specialist. She leads conference and community workshops on creativity, journal writing, intentional travel, travel journal writing, craft of writing, and travel writing.
Rhonda is author of her coming-of-age travel memoir, At Home in the World: Travel Stories of Growing up and Growing Away, and just completed her first novel and is seeking an agent. Her publications can be found online and in print in various publications, including as travel columnist for two local lifestyle magazines in the Texas Hill Country, as well as published in SCN’s Inside and Out: Women’s Truths, Women’s Stories (2018 Anthology).