I will preface my question by stating I am very new to writing and new to this website. I am here for help.

I'm writing a collection of inspirational short stories, as though I was sitting across from someone over coffee sharing my experiences. Because my normal manner of speaking is in passive voice, I am struggling desperately to convert over to active voice, which is basically stifling the flow of my thoughts and words, making them almost stiff and impersonal.

I have been studying the grammar rules and know exactly what needs to be done, but I am stuck - what is the best advice you can offer for someone in my situation? I am not ashamed or embarrassed to ask this but would appreciate your input. Thank you.

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    My first question is why you are trying to write in the active voice if it is actively harming your writing. If there isn't a good reason, do what's natural. Your writing will be better for it. My second question - or observation - is that your question is more or less in active voice. Was it hard to write? If not, channel that. – Thomas Myron Aug 9 at 6:46
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    Good point, Thomas; active voice is not always the 'correct' style, as much as it's recommended. It's punchier and works better for an impatient modern audience, but if it's forced it can look worse than passive voice. – Matthew Dave Aug 9 at 6:58
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    Do whatever it takes to finish writing your short stories, then go back and edit them if you need to. You're stuck because you're fighting against yourself, and second guessing everything you're doing. You're stifling your flow over something that can be fixed later. – Craig Sefton Aug 9 at 7:05
  • If you are stuck and looking for inspiration. The best advice I can give you is look for similar stories that you are aspiring to emulate. Look for how others do the thing you want to write and see how you can change your writing more into their style. Even though this will fail especially the first few times, keep practising. Eventually things WILL improve and in the end it is worth your time. – Totumus Maximus Aug 9 at 7:20
  • A good overview of why the passive voice is over-maligned: stroppyeditor.wordpress.com/2013/07/02/… – J.G. Aug 9 at 9:12

Well, for starters, a mix of active and passive voice gives your writing variation. It's the same with how you would want to vary sentence length and structure.

The difference between active voice and passive voice is where you put your focus.

The dog bit the man. (Active) The man was bitten by the dog. (Passive)

If your default is passive voice, I think a good place to start is trying to recognize when you are using PV and when you are using AV. In my experience, PV is usually recognizable by the preposition "by." I think this is a good resource on AV/PV, and has some good examples on when PV is actually good to use. Hope it helps!

  • Points for talking about variety in sentence length and structure and using passive/active voice to achieve that. I often feel like a sentence doesn't 'feel right' in the active voice, and it's usually because of the rhythm of it compared to its preceding sentences. – Matthew Dave Aug 9 at 8:28

It is somewhat normal to write a first draft with a passive style.

Here is how you shift writing to a more active voice:

(1) Search through your document for is/was/were and similar verbs of being. Assess each instance, and decide if that word is part of a passive construction, and reformat to active if appropriate.

(2) Part of passivity, though, is not passive voice per se but comes about through the addition of qualifying action verbs. Trying to do something is less powerful that doing something. Scan through your document for any construction as: 'began to x,' 'tried to x,' 'thought about doing x' -- anything along these lines. Basically, such constructions place a weaker verb before a more active verb. (There is no try. Do. Or do not.)

(3) Some verbs are inherently considered weak, even 'action verbs,' if they are vague or overused, simplistic verbs. Running is weaker than bolting or dashing. Biting is weaker than ripping into. Thinking is weaker than calculating.

(4) Along the lines of 'thinking.' Any verb that you 'can do on your couch' should be critically examined. Looking, thinking, sitting, dreaming, remembering, and so on. Consider deleting any instance of a verb that does not require the character to physically move.

These are not absolute rules, of course. You must decide on a case-by-case basis. If you make those four editorial rounds on your writing, you'll have a more active piece of prose.

  • Thank you! I can tell I am in the company of talented writers and I appreciate all this input! – LadyO Aug 9 at 15:08

I struggle with this too, so while I can't completely act like I know what I'm doing, I would like to recommend this app:

http://www.hemingwayapp.com/

It's a neat little app that will at the very least flag up all the little ways you're using passive voice so you know where you're tripping up. It's useful for minimalist prose in general, but don't take its word as gospel; after all, if everyone was hyper-minimalist, there'd be no stylistic variation.

Note: I'm not sponsored by Hemingwayapp.

Don't worry about it in your first draft. It's hard enough to finish a first draft, don't make it harder by trying to write perfectly. Just get your story out and fix it later.

Especially since you're working on short pieces, you can devote your revisions to individual issues. Read through once just to look for passive voice. Read through again just to look for weak verbs. Read through again, listening to awkward phrasing. Rinse and repeat.

Do you know someone who speaks in an active voice?

If so then a simple method is to have that person (In your minds eye) speak your dialogue to you.

Alternatively, if you have a favourite character who uses active voice, then that is another possible person you have speak this dialogue to you.

With this kind of visualisation I find it helpful to be in a quiet room - or have my headphones on - to completely isolate myself from outside stimulus. I will also have my eyes closed. Then I spend some time first getting into the head of the person or character I want to "speak" the dialogue.

Then I will have them do so in my head. For me personally I also find that if I try to do any of this out load it doesn't work very well - the sound of my own voice gets in the way.

Let things slow down - try to frame things a small concept at a time. Once it begins, it will flow naturally. Keep rolling with it and after a while you should be able to begin recording what your character is saying.

I'm struggling with the idea that you customarily write in passive voice, because, well, people just don't do that. Passive voice is really pretty rare.

Just to clarify what we're talking about:

"Joe fed the dog" is active voice.

"The dog was fed by Joe" is passive voice.

But--

"The dog was eating" is ACTIVE voice.

Is that, perhaps, what you're talking about? It's not passive voice. It is past continuous tense, and it is possible to overuse past continuous tense.

More examples:

The club was disbanded: Passive voice.

The club was in turmoil: Active voice, but past continuous tense.

Jane was seated by the hostess: Passive voice.

Jane was sitting at a window table: Active voice, but past continuous tense.

I realize this isn't really an answer, but it's hard to answer without being reasonably confident of what the problem is.

  • This is EXACTLY what I needed help on! Thank you so much for clarifying!!!! – LadyO Aug 15 at 15:57
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    @LadyO If you feel that this answers your question, you can indicate so by accepting, by clicking the checkmark outline near the voting arrows. – a CVn Aug 15 at 20:07

Consider finishing your draft before trying to do active voice and instead changing things to active prose in your revisions.

Active vs passive voice usually reads better, but it does not change the meaning of the text it just makes it seem more energetic and immediate. Therefore it is not like you will have to restructure huge pieces of plots or similar if you want to change it later. So it is good to do it in late revisions.

Improving prose is something that is usally good to save until late revisions. (If you do it in early revisions or in your initial draft there might be large parts you end up not using or you have to rewrite a chapter because the plot doesnt work or you want to change a character and suddenly you have wasted a lot of effort improving prose you are scrapping and rewriting anyway)

And obviously if you just write great from the start you'll have less revising to do in the future, but if trying to write great stops your drafting process there is nothing unusual with saving it for later and just producing the words.

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