The 5 R’s process to cure passive voice

I’ve cured many writers of the passive habit. I can cure you, too. All it takes is the 5 R’s: recognize, raise awareness, reconsider, rewrite, and retrain.

Think of this process the way you’d think of changing your diet. Let’s say you want to cut down on sugar. First you need to recognize why sugar is a problem. Then you need to raise your awareness of all the places sugar lurks in your diet. You must reconsider your sugar habit. Then you’ll need to replace the sugary foods with stuff that’s better for you. Finally, you need to retrain yourself around better habits to make the change permanent.

With passive voice, as with sugar, your objective should not be to eliminate it completely. It should be to reduce it as much as possible. When you’ve finished the 5 R’s steps I describe here, you’ll be a better, more active writer. I’ve got more details on each step after the chart.

cure passive voice

Recognize why passive voice is a problem.

I covered this topic in detail in yesterday’s post. Passive sentences that lack actors make your writing murky and mysterious. Unless you’re going for a Stephen King vibe in that research report or purpose statement, don’t put readers through that. Active voice sentences are more direct and clear. That’s what you want.

Raise your awareness of passive voice.

You write passive sentences because you read so many of them. Academic papers, news articles, and most of the writing you read online are rife with passive. Passive sounds sort of sophisticated, because it creates distance between the writer and the reader. Consciously or unconsciously, you’ve picked that up. Unfortunately, that distance also creates confusion.

The easiest way to become aware of passive is to give a draft of something you’re writing to a good editor once you’re at the paragraph- and line-editing stage. Have the editor highlight all the passive sentences.

I once edited a very smart analyst who didn’t realize how bad his passive habit was. After highlighting the first two instances of passive in his draft, I added this comment: “I’m going to ask you to slap yourself each time you write a passive voice sentence.” For the rest of the document, I just highlighted the passive sentences and added the comment “Slap.” In a 5-page document he needed to slap himself about 18 times.

Even if you don’t slap yourself, when you get the document back from your editor, you may be depressed. Don’t be. That feeling of nausea is natural in the awareness stage. It gets a lot easier from here.

Microsoft Word will highlight passive for you, as will online tools like Grammarly. If you look for forms of “to be” with past-tense verbs (actually past participles), you’ll spot a lot of them. Even so, I think a live editor is more helpful as you’re learning to raise your awareness. Just as with changing your diet, you’re a lot more effective with a coach.

Reconsider your habit.

Once you’ve gotten past the nausea, examine your passives. Why did you write them? What were you trying to hide? The reasons are not always the same. Consider these examples and the corresponding reasons (passives in bold italic).

The puzzle of why big firms exhibit such innovative inertia was placed into a theoretical framework by Clayton Christensen in his pioneering book The Innovator’s Dilemma. (From a book about the Internet.) The writer habitually writes in academic language.

A white paper is considered to be a standard marketing tool today. (From a Web page.) The writer wants to make a vague, unsupported statement and hasn’t done the research to back it up.

Health care is being transformed to deliver care and services in a person-centered manner and is increasingly provided through community and home-based services. (From a government report.) The writer doesn’t want to talk about whose job it is to transform healthcare.

In my previous post, I classified passives according to the missing subject, such as the reader, the writer, or the person who’s paying. Consider the missing subjects in your passive sentences; they’ll tell you a lot about what you’re avoiding saying.

While many passives are just lazy writing, fear is also a factor. You either don’t want to say who’s responsible for something or don’t want readers to blame you. Writing these sentences in active voice is an act of courage, and one your readers will respect.

Rewrite passive sentences.

Fixing passives sounds easy. Check that verb. Ask yourself who is transforming, placing, and considering. When you’ve answered the question, rewrite the sentence with that person or entity as the subject. But sometimes it’s not so simple, as you can see from my rewrites of the above examples.

Clayton Christensen, in his pioneering book The Innovator’s Dilemma, created a theoretical framework that solves the puzzle of why big firms exhibit such innovative inertia.

White papers are highly effective marketing tools that drive leads and boost email signups.

We are experiencing a health care transformation. Health care providers increasingly deliver care and services in a person-centered manner in community and home-based services.

Rewriting passive voice may require research to prove an unsupported statement. You may want to rethink the sentence altogether. Or you may want to retain the passive sentence if you feel the object of the sentence is more important than the subject. Rewriting passive makes you think harder about what you’re saying. Even if you decide to keep it in some cases, this is a good way to keep your writing honest and clear.

Retrain your brain around active voice.

Like sugar, the passive voice habit is always ready to undermine your determination. Some of my protégés have slid back to old habits now that they don’t have me looking over their shoulders any more.

If you want to maintain the value of what you’ve learned, put passive checking into the line-edit stage of every piece of writing you do. Look for “is,” “are,” “can,” “could”, “have,” and “has” in your writing and ask if the sentences that include them are passive. This helps sharpen your “passive detector.” Do it enough, and you’ll learn to catch yourself as you’re writing.

I also recommend going back to your editor and coach from time to time. They’ll remind you where you’re going wrong and help keep your passive detector properly calibrated.

Sure, this is hard. But it’s not painful forever. Train yourself with the 5 R’s and your writing will be better from this point forward. When will you start?

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  1. You mention the possibility of retaining a passive sentence if the sentence’s object is more important than its subject. Are there circumstances in which you think passive constructions are more appropriate, useful, or clearer than their active counterparts?

    1. The basic rule of thumb is . . . identify the missing subject. If you rewrite it with that subject and and it sounds odd or puts the emphasis in the wrong place, passive is still better.

      For example: “The budget was in balance, except for expenses run up by consultants.” You could rewrite as “The budget was in balance except that consultants ran up additional expenses.” But the passive allows “expenses” to be the subject of the second phrase which goes better with “budget.”