Revising Passive Voice to Active Voice

Image from Reedsy’s Active Vs Passive Voice

“Her steps were tentative. Fiona wasn’t sure she could avoid the captain’s anger, if he showed up. However, the anticipation of viewing the sky with Jacob who always looked out for her was new emotional territory. She followed him.” (43 words) 

What’s wrong with that paragraph? Three of the four sentences are passive. Active voice is always preferred over passive, because we can see the action as we read and it is more dynamic. 

How do we identify passive voice to change it? A writer can identify passive voice in a sentence by looking for “to be” verbs, like “was,” “were,” “had been,” or “would get to be.” Below see the passive sentence, an improved one with an active verb. It reads more naturally and the reader can see what kind of action is in play. 

Then see a better version to add clarity or reads even more naturally from at least one writer’s viewpoint. 

  • PASSIVE: Her steps were tentative. 
  • ACTIVE: She trod forward. 
  • BETTER: She trod behind Jacob with caution. 
  • PASSIVE: Fiona wasn’t sure she could avoid the captain’s anger, if he showed up. 
  • ACTIVE: Fiona did not know whether she could avoid angering the captain, if he showed up. 
  • BETTER: Fiona did not know if she could avoid Captain Best’s anger, if he saw her again. 
  • PASSIVE: The anticipation of viewing the sky with a man who always looked out for her was new emotional territory.
  • ACTIVE: New emotional territory frightened Fiona as she anticipated viewing the sky with a man who always looked out for her. 
  • BETTER: She did not know how she should act when she stood alone next to Jacob viewing the sky. 

Improved paragraph: 

“She trod behind Jacob with caution. Fiona, however, did not know if she could avoid Captain Best’s anger, if he caught her again. In addition, she didn’t know how she should act when she stood alone next to Jacob viewing the sky. She decided to follow him to the bow anyway.” (55 words) 

SUMMARY: Though the word count increases, it now reads more clearly and naturally. We use passive voice in conversation, so it sounds natural. However, when read in sentence after sentence and page after page, it becomes monotonous.

Rhonda Wiley Jones

With a M.Ed. in adult education, Rhonda Wiley-Jones is a professional training and staff development specialist. She leads conference and community workshops on creativity, journal writing, intentional travel, travel journal writing, craft of writing, and travel writing.

Rhonda is author of her coming-of-age travel memoir, At Home in the World: Travel Stories of Growing up and Growing Away, and just completed her first novel and is seeking an agent. Her publications can be found online and in print in various publications, including as travel columnist for two local lifestyle magazines in the Texas Hill Country, as well as published in SCN’s Inside and Out: Women’s Truths, Women’s Stories (2018 Anthology).


Photo from by Steve Johnson

A few years ago, while hiking with a group along the cliffs of Cornwall, England, one woman in our party sat down at the end of every day with her sketchpad to draw the scene before her, a slight smile on her lips. I envied her. I never mastered anything beyond a simple flower, a sun, a little house. I admired her but didn’t take the time to observe her process.

Our local art museum offers drawing classes, and at the beginning of this year, I decided to sign up. The pandemic ended that before it began but I found an online class at another museum. Every week, I follow a different lesson – landscape, perspective, portrait, still life. Guess what else I learned? I can draw! I suspect anyone can learn to draw, just like anyone can learn to write. Sure, the talented ones will do it best, but we can all learn to do something better than we did before.

This week, my country is on fire with anger, sorrow, and despair. Because of the murder of yet another black American by police, systemic racism is once again forcing us to look, to see.

When I started my drawing lessons, I was surprised at how much it was like learning to write. And now, how much it is like confronting racism. They all have these things in common:

You have to look. Really look.

When I write, I look for the details that will paint a picture in my readers’ minds. When I draw, I look at how a pine tree is different from an oak. This week, I don’t have to look far to see the pain black Americans are going through.

It takes time.

When I sat down to draw, I used my eraser a lot. Writers call that revision. We need to erase systemic racism from our society, and revise our perspective on our own place in it.

It takes practice.

We will make mistakes. Sometimes I throw away an essay or a drawing and start over. Can white Americans like me own our mistakes and start over?

It takes humility.

I cringed when I found something I wrote twenty years ago. I thought it was good enough to submit for publication. It wasn’t. My first attempts at drawing are not for public view, but they got me started. This week I joined a group to read and discuss the book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo.

Writing, drawing, looking – and maybe, finally, seeing. May it be so.

Linda W.



My writing and teaching focus on the connections we make by giving each other the time and space to be heard. I have published dozens of essays and memoirs, including a piece that was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and became the first chapter of my memoir, Off Kilter, which was published in 2008 by Pearlsong Press. My time travel novel about an 18th century ancestor, Where the Stork Flies, is forthcoming from Sand Hill Review Press.