(A Tip for Better Writing You’ll Want to Use Starting Yesterday)
One of my first coaching comments to a retired pilot who is writing a fascinating and historically-significant memoir was to write using an active voice. I wasn’t expecting his response.
You’ve heard this advice from any editor or writing resource—but why not use a passive voice and why use an active voice?
Look at this example, where first we use a passive voice, and then rewrite, using an active voice:
[P] That best-seller was written by my sister.
[A] My sister wrote that best-seller.
(The “active” one has so much more energy in it, I’m tempted to put an exclamation point at the end.]
So, part of the way you can distinguish active from passive, is by feel.
Technically, “active voice” means that when building a sentence, you do it in this order: subject, then verb or verb phrase, then object.
In the above example, “my sister” is the subject. The verb or verb phrase is “wrote,” and the object is “that book.”
In the passive voice, we see this order: object, then verb or verb phrase, then subject.
Good Things Happen When You Write in Active Voice
- Sentences are less wordy and easier to understand instantly.
- Sentences are more direct. In the passive voice, they can become convoluted.
- The active voice creates a sense of “now” and improves the pace of your writing.
- You want to sound conversational, not formal and distant. When using an active voice, you’re writing the way most people speak.
- As I said about how it feels, using the active voice creates an emotional impact. For instance: The girls stole Ava’s new leather jacket, which had her wallet in it.
I feel a little upset reading that, don’t you? Some anger, shock.
Compare your emotional reaction when the sentence is in the passive voice: Ava’s new leather jacket with her wallet in it was stolen by the girls.
Using the active voice, you emphasize the actor rather than the action. You can use the passive voice when you would rather emphasize the action or subject.
Also, you may intentionally want to put emotional distance between your topic and your reader. If you’re looking for a softer landing, the passive voice often helps.
But be careful…you don’t want to dilute your writing with any of these:
Corporate-speak: The sales numbers from last quarter resulted in the decision to close two branch offices. (Sounds like no humans were involved anywhere.)
Science-speak: The brain was damaged by depriving it of oxygen for that long.
Scientific and bureaucratic writing creates a sense of objectivity and formality by using a passive voice.
Government-speak: Active voice makes it clear who is supposed to do what. You’ll read, “This must be done,” but what is actually meant is, “You must do this.” It’s easy to obscure who is responsible for what when using the passive voice.
Legal-speak: Sometimes, the actor in the sentence is the law.
“If the property tax is not paid on time, a lien can be placed on your property.”
Non-fiction Writers, Listen Up!
Don’t get stuck on writing “just the facts, ma’am.”
Even if you’re writing non-fiction, you want to engage your readers and write in a way which people will enjoy reading. You want to tell stories! You want to use dialogue! And you want to use an active voice.
Look back over an article, blog, chapter, or letter you have written and see if you can find any use of the passive voice. Here are some tips:
Look for the word “by” and you’ll probably see a phrase that uses the passive voice. After “by,” you will usually see the subject. When you rewrite so that the subject comes before the action, you don’t need the word “by.” (“My sister wrote that book” needs no “by.”)
Look for the past participle because the passive voice always uses the past participle form of the verb. It will describe a completed action: looked, reached, was stolen, resulted, she was lost, etc. (Not all phrases with this verb form use a passive voice, but you should check.)
For example: The photo was taken by his mother. It’s easy to catch this as using a passive voice because of both the past participle and the word “by.”
Move the subject (mother) to the beginning of the sentence so that it’s before the verb when rewriting to use an active voice. Then change the past participle to the right form of the verb. In this case, it will be “took” since the sentence is in the past tense: His mother took the photo.
Using the Active Voice will Tell Readers You are a Good Writer
Using an active voice will change the character of your writing. It will flow at a better pace and be much more engaging.
It should be given a chance…
Nope…Give it a chance
Thank you for sharing these great examples.
I tend to write in the passive voice, so this was very useful for me. Thank you
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