Thursday, August 30, 2012

I No Longer Fear Passive Voice

I cannot count the number of times I have read not to use passive voice in writing. Or how often I have searched for ways to spot it in my own writing. While editing this summer I found myself constantly battling with it. So, of course I went searching for a better way to find it. Up until now my method has been simple. 

I have a list of words to search for as I edit: am, are, been, being, decided, felt, had, has, have, heard, is, knew, looked, noticed, realized, saw, thought, was, watched, were, wondered

Yet, no matter how hard I try to fix those pesky sentences they still sneak past me. When I get back critiques inevitably I will find "passive voice" marked somewhere on the document.

If you are like me you need a back up plan. Luckily, I learned a trick this summer and I'm going to share it with you because I believe in sharing the wealth of knowledge. Unfortunately I only know a trick for MS Word, since I do not own a Mac.
  1. With your manuscript, or chapter, open in MS Word open your spelling and grammar check.
  2. When the spelling and grammar check window opens click on the options button.
  3. A new window will appear. One that will allow you to change your preferences. 
  4. In this new window locate the settings button and click it. Yet another window will pop up, but this is the one which works the magic. 
  5. Scroll down to the heading Style. There you will find a myriad of choices to choose from. One of those choices is passive sentences. Click it! (I added several others as well.)
  6. Click Okay and the window closes, leaving the Options window open. 
  7. Click Okay again to get back to the spelling and grammar check window. 
  8. Start searching your document for passive voice! 
I hope this helps you as much as it has helped me to fight the evil of passive voice.

If you know how to do this for Mac, please add it in the comments.

~ Heather


  1. I don't think passive voice is inherently evil, either. I use the trick you mentioned above to find all instances of passive voice, but sometimes it is necessary to leave certain sentences as written. I don't want to hack all the passive voice out of a story, but I agree that most instances can be written better in an active voice. This is an easy way to find all the passivity.

  2. Who knew it was so easy to find passive voice?! On my Macbook, I usually write my first draft in Scrivener and then compile/convert it to Word. I think MS Word is used widely by Mac people.

  3. Thanks for this! I've decided to give Scrivener a closer look.

    1. (Got trigger happy with the mouse button, sorry.)

      I've used MS Word and played with some of these features with mixed levels of satisfaction. Some of what it flags is right on the money and some is annoying.

      I've heard good things about Scrivener (and a couple other tools.) I still use a custom-written writing workbench that interfaces with MS Word for spell & grammar check, word count, thesaurus, etc., but I like the idea of working with the book in smaller chunks.

      And regarding passive voice...that just comes so unbelievably natural to me. It's a hard habit to shake.