The Extreme Active Voice

We readers prefer a narrative that flows in “active voice” sentences. We might not realize it, we might not even know what active voice is, but trust me, we readers prefer it. Why? Simply put: active voice means better, faster reading comprehension.

For example, read these two sentences, then ask yourself which one reads "easier."

The ghost haunted the man day and night.

The man was haunted by the ghost day and night.

Not a huge difference, but there's a difference nonetheless. Nothing is grammatically wrong with the second sentence—which is in “passive voice,” by the way—but the first sentence clues you into the action faster. The subject (ghost) is doing the “acting” (haunted).

Recently, I read The Watchers by Jon Steele, which really highlighted the active versus passive voice for me both as a reader and a writer. Steele writes his fiction in active voice almost exclusively.

Here’s an excerpt:

Max stared at his mother, dribbles of oatmeal spilling from the corners of his mouth as he smiled. He recognized the words your face, buster, and oh, oh. He recognized his mother’s body language. Her head was tilted to the side, her face scrunched up, eyes smiling. All together, Max knew something very funny was happening. He kicked his feet and banged his spoon on the tray.

And another one:

They wound down the north slope of the Pyrenees and onto the plain. The storm followed close after them. Soon the snow came in fat flakes, quickly covering open patches of ground at the side of the road. Serge flipped on the windshield wipers. The blades made squeak sounds over the glass.

Notice how these excerpts are not stark or simplistic, but clean, well-paced, and lyrical. You’d be surprised just how difficult it is to write this way, yet it makes for excellent storytelling.

As a writer, I need to think about things like active and passive voice because, frankly, the easier it is on you to read and enjoy what I write, the more you will keep reading me.

Fortunately, the word “was” is a sign that I’ve taken a wrong turn active-wise (see the example of passive voice above). So now, in terms of my own writing, all I need do is search for “was” in my manuscript and change the voice to active. Definitely sounds easier said than done!

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