A Tool for Detecting Passive Voice: Author Toolbox

There are some generally accepted Golden Rules for authors (which, okay, change from century to century, genre to genre, and are not so much rules as guidelines?) One of them is DEATH to All Adverbs, which I am personally fighting against because I love me a good adverb. Another is Conflict is King. Too bad no one can really decide on the definitive definition of “conflict” for any given novel since it’s pretty much subjective and changes depending on what you’re writing.

bean disappointed
Rules. Amirite, Mr. Bean?

ANYWAY. One current rule (guideline) which seems to have real life merit and wide application is; Never Write in Passive Voice.

Great. Yes. Now, HOW DO I KNOW when I commit this heinous crime? Do the Passive Voice Police come busting through my windows to slap a brisk NO stamp on the offending typing hand? Does the Shade of Charles Dickens ghost out of my monitor, shaking his head sadly? (LIKE YOU HAVE ROOM TO TALK, CHARLES) Do my beta readers get so bored they fall asleep and slam their heads on their keyboards? HOW? How do I tell?

Screen shot 2012-10-24 at 4.17.24 PM
Source: @johnsonr on Twitter

Well, this seems simple. If I insert “by zombies” after the verb and the sentence makes sense, bless me father, for I have sinned and must make penance by fixing it. If I insert “by zombies” and it doesn’t make any sense, it’s active voice and I’m fine! Yay!

Let’s go ahead and try it with my current work in progress.

“You’re the sidekick,” he said again. “The one with a name you need a thesaurus for.” He snapped by zombies his fingers softly, looking by zombies at the ceiling.

  • Active voice! Initiate happy dance.

Michaela ignored him by zombies . . . She bustled by zombies around, laying out sterile gauze packs and sealed saline bottles, the glove boxes, large gauze pads in case they had to debride the wound, bringing up all of his charts on the computer system. 

  • Okay I use a lot of verbs. Apparently. Yikes. Anyway, still active voice?

She slipped by zombies the cuff over his uninjured arm in preparation for taking his blood pressure. And avoided by zombies those deep, dark eyes at the same time. He obviously thought she’d help him shatter her cover voluntarily, maybe if he smoldered enough.

  • Active voice. Zombies continue to make no sense in this context and I’m sticking with this diagnosis. My god do I use a lot of adverbs, but I love them so much!

He grinned by zombies over at Michaela. “So, when do you get off work?”

The smile in her eyes snuffed out. “No.”

“I didn’t even ask yet.”

“Still no. Supervillains and sidekicks don’t mix.”

“They could.” He winked by zombies at her.

“But they don’t. Opposite sides, opposite goals. You hurt people for a living, Bane.”

  • Seriously pleased right now. I might have grammar and fragment and wording and adverb issues like crazy, but at least I’m avoiding passive voice!

“Only a little.” He realized it was the wrong thing to say even as the words left his mouth. Too nonchalant. Too careless. “I’m more in the line of providing…things to people who need them. Not hurting people.”

“The things you provide kill people.”

He was no longer amused by zombies. “I have never killed anyone. Or provided anything that does.”

  • Ha. And there’s some passive voice. Well, it does happen occasionally and it’s only a cardinal sin if I repeat it with every sentence, so I’m leaving this as-is.

As an exercise this is time consuming, but I could see it being very helpful for any short parts you might be having trouble deciding whether or not they’re passive. As I’m writing I find myself mentally inserting “by zombies” here and there to help myself decide. So there’s that.

There are many people with more experience than I have who have tackled this issue. Some of their links for you:

Hamilton College examples

Passive voice, myths, and when it’s okay to use it, UNC Chapel Hill article

Grammarly blog examples and when to use passive voice

Nano Blog and Social Media Hop2This article is part of the monthly Author Toolbox blog hop, hosted by our fearless leader Raimey Gallant. Click this hyperlink, join in, and soon your author toolbox will overflow with useful things. It’s very much worth becoming a part of this supportive group!



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I’m going to try “by zombies” after the verb to check my own writing. Thanks, SE, for the tip! I like your story, by the way! All best to you.


Cool technique. Thanks for sharing! 🙂


I’ve read this advice before, but you’re the first person who’s applied it to active sentences as well as passive. And that proves another piece of writing advice: show, don’t tell. Because it’s much easier to see what’s wrong when we can see what’s right. I hope that makes sense!

Elle Marr

Ha! Definitely a fun way to reexamine passive voice, and remind ourselves to be wary of zombies FOR MANY REASONS. Thanks for sharing!


I actually heard of a similar test once. Not sure it was ‘by zombies’ but it does work.


I’m in stitches by zombies. hehehe

Anna from elements of emaginette

K. Alice Compeau

Ha ha! I love it! What a great way to figure this out (and fun too!)

“by zombies” LOL. Imagine forgetting to remove it from the text — it’ll read like a secret code! Good exercise, though.

Ronel visiting on Author Toolbox day 6 Tips to Think Like a Book Blogger

Raimey Gallant

I’m a recovering avoider of adverbs. 🙂 Passive voice is only a problem, in my opinion, if an author defaults to passive for most sentences. There are many reasons to write in passive, and I do it quite a bit. Great exercise, and I think it is most useful for authors who aren’t yet aware of the difference between passive/active.

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