How to Write with the Active Voice
By Patrick McBrine, Partner
We all know the benefits of active living: greater strength and focus, higher energy punctuated by healthier, happier moods.
Active writing is no different. If your style is a little bit weak and tired, unfocused, it may need a boost of activity.
At HeadStart, one of the most common edits we suggest to clients is to make a habit of active writing, because the passive is generally weak and wordy.
Look at these two sentences:
- Passive: The city is visited by thousands of athletes each year.
- Active: Thousands of athletes visit the city each year.
- Immediately, you can see that the second sentence is shorter. That is a virtue of active writing: concision. In fact, we could be more concise, still, and say “yearly” instead of “each year.” It depends on how you want the language to flow, but good writing involves this process of revision and whittling down a sentence to its essentials. That’s how you sharpen your message.
- Here, too, the focus is sharper in the second sentence, because the subject, “thousands of athletes,” is clear from the beginning. In fact, your readers and listeners expect the subject to be there. Why?
- Because English is an SVO language (subject, verb, object), and the active voice reflects this natural order. The passive voice does not (OSV). So, switching from the passive to the active will also help make your marketing messages clearer and thus more effective.
Of course, there are good reasons to use the passive voice: variation; the sound and flow of a line; to emphasize the action rather than the actor; to be tactful by not naming the actor; or to describe a condition in which the actor is unknown or unimportant, but you have to be deliberate in these choices as a writer, to be the ruler and not the ruled.
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