Why is it better to write in active voice? It’s what every writing coach and editor will tell you. But why? And how do you keep from slipping into the nasty habit of passive voice?
First, let’s look at what the active voice is. It simply means that when you construct a sentence, you do it in this order: subject, then verb or verb phrase, then object.
Andy ate all the cookies.
In this sentence, Andy is the subject. The verb or verb phrase is “ate” and the object is “all the cookies”.
In the passive voice, you construct the sentence the other way around: object, then verb or verb phrase, then subject.
All the cookies were eaten by Andy.
See? (Either way, it sucks if you were looking forward to those cookies.)
One of the main benefits when you write in active voice is that your sentences will be shorter.
Check Active Andy above compared to Passive Andy. Shorter and snappier, yes? Active voice makes for more concise, less wordy sentences. And less wordy sentences are easier to understand. There are other benefits of using the active voice too.
Active voice makes for more concise, less wordy sentences. Which are easier to understand. #writingtips #activevoice
Scientific and bureaucratic writing often use the passive voice, since it creates a sense of objectivity and formality. Unfortunately many non-fiction writers think that they should use the passive voice too. They’re writing about facts, after all.
However, even if you’re writing about true events, you want to tell a story that people will enjoy reading. If you’ve ever struggled to stay awake while reading a scientific report written primarily in the passive voice, you’ll understand why this isn’t the best way to construct your sentences when you want to engage your readers.
How do you know if a sentence is in the passive voice? And how do you write in active voice instead?
This often indicates the passive voice, in which case the words following the word “by” are normally the subject of the sentence. Rewrite your sentence so that the subject comes before the action and the word “by” becomes obsolete. All the cookies were eaten by Andy.
It doesn’t always indicate the passive voice, but passive voice always uses the past participle form of the verb. A past participle is the form of the verb describing a completed action: looked, reached, he was lost, etcetera.
For example, The book was written by a former police officer. It’s easy to identify this sentence as passive voice because of both the past participle and the word “by.”
To turn this sentence into active voice, you need to move the subject, “a former police officer”, to the beginning of the sentence so that it’s before the verb. Then you need to change the past participle to the appropriate form of the verb. In this case, it will be “wrote” since the sentence is in the past tense: A former policeman wrote the book.
Sometimes the subject isn’t present when the sentence is in the passive voice. For example: In Buddhism, it is believed that life is an endless cycle of death and rebirth.
Who is the subject here? In other words, who believes that life is an endless cycle of death and rebirth? The sentence doesn’t explicitly state who believes this. However, we can tell from the context. We get our clue from the phrase, “In Buddhism.” So, we can safely assume that it’s Buddhists who believe that life is an endless cycle of death and rebirth. Therefore, we can rewrite the sentence in active voice this way: Buddhists believe that life is an endless cycle of death and rebirth.
The context may not always be clear from the sentence itself but from the rest of the text. Then you can use a more general term for the subject. For example, “people,” “researchers,” “experts in the field,” “scientists,” and so on.
Sometimes you can even use the general term “they.” Take this common saying, for example: It is said that life begins at 40. Since it’s such a universal saying, thanks in part to the massive demographic cohort of baby boomers, it’s perfectly acceptable to rewrite it like this: They say that life begins at 40. And there you have a sentence that makes an impact.
As with so much in writing, it’s terrific to practice. When you read, practice spotting the active and passive voice. Write in active voice until you feel really comfortable with it. Then you can break the rules, on purpose and with flair, and write in passive voice only when the circumstances call for it.
What are your favourite tricks for spotting and fixing passive voice and turning it into active voice?
Boni is co-founder of Ingenium Books. She's author of One Million Readers: The Definitive Strategy to a Nonfiction Book Marketing Strategy that Saves Time, Money, and Sells More Books. Boni is an author coach, editor, and ghostwriter. As an award-winning former Canadian television reporter, news anchor, producer, and talk show host, working under the names Boni Fox and Boni Fox Gray (it's a long story), Boni covered politics, government, the economy, health, First Nations, and crime. She won several Canadian Association of Broadcaster (CAB) awards and a Jack Webster Award for best documentary. Boni also held senior management roles in government, leading teams responsible for editorial, issues management, media relations, and strategic communications planning. Boni is co-author of Rock Your Business: 26 Essential Lessons to Start, Run, and Grow Your New Business From the Ground Up and, like any good author, has several books in progress.
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