It's time to talk about passive voice! But what is passive voice, exactly?
In English, we have two "voices" for our verbs: Active and Passive. Don't get too hung up on the terminology though, because it isn't as complicated as it sounds.
Active voice is when the subject of the sentence is doing the action. Like this:
I (the subject) ate (the action) the cookies (the object of the verb).
They (subject) were (action) delicious.
(Why yes, I'm craving sugar right now, how could you tell?)
Passive voice is when the subject is being passive like a doormat--they're being acted upon by someone else. Like this:
The cookies (subject) were baked (action) by me (the person really doing the action).
In this case, the cookies didn't have to do any work; they just sit around and wait, passively, for me to bake them.
Passive voice will usually have a subject later in the sentence that's doing the action.
So why is this bad when writing? Well, for starters, instead of saying "The cookies were baked by me" I could use half as many words and make it active: "I baked cookies." And because the sentence is shorter and to the point, it's also more straightforward to read.
Another benefit of Active voice is that it puts the focus of the sentence on what's usually important: the actors and their actions. It allows you to pick stronger verbs.
Think about that passive example again. Can you see how "The cookies were baked by me" is probably putting the emphasis on the wrong part of the sentence? Even if someone had asked who made the cookies, it would still be simpler to reply "I did," or "I baked them." Because my action is what is interesting about the situation.
Now, do you have to eliminate every single instance of passive voice? Probably not. There are rare situations where passive voice works better, particularly if you want to emphasize that the subject of the sentence was passive in whatever happened. But you should look for any instances of passive voice and examine them carefully to see if active voice is stronger.
There's a quick tip someone came up with on how to identify passive voice. Multiple sources cite Rebecca Johnson, a professor of culture and ethics at USMC, as the genius behind this tip.
If you can add "by zombies" to the end of your sentence and it works, you're using passive voice.
Like this: I ate the cookies by zombies. (Doesn't make sense, so not passive.)
Or: The cookies were delicious by zombies. (Also not passive.)
But: The cookies were baked by zombies IS passive. Since there was already a "by so-and-so" clause in there, you replace that one with "by zombies."
And I don't know about you, but I don't want to eat any cookies that might have been made by zombies. That seems sketchy to me. So go edit those pesky zombies out of your manuscripts, along with instances of the passive voice!
Every Wednesday and Saturday we bring you an edit tip of the day. Be sure to check out the archives for our popular summer series of SHOW DON'T TELL workshops!