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Writing Tips: Active Voice

All Articles for Writers

by
Author of over 8,000 articles in print or online; former trade magazine editor

Writing in the active voice rather than the passive voice gives your writing more life and more clarity. And that can affect your career prospects. Use the active voice unless doing so makes a sentence awkward. Your writing will stand out, and your readers will perceive you as more energetic than if you had used passive voice.

If you are in sales or marketing, the active voice should dominate your writing style. No matter what field you are in, active voice will improve your credibility because you are talking to the reader instead of at the reader. Passive voice indicates an unwillingness or inability to communicate, because it is indirect.

  • A verb is in the active voice when it expresses an action the subject performs.
  • A verb is in the passive voice when it expresses an action performed upon the subject or when the subject is the result of the action.

 

 

Here are examples that show, rather than tell, what active voice is:

Passive voice

Active voice

The drawing is being reviewed by Bill.

Bill is reviewing the drawing.

To do this, a mandrel is inserted into the bore.

To do this, insert a mandrel into the bore.

The building was struck by lightning.

Lightning struck the building.

The switchgear was installed by a contractor.

A contractor installed the switchgear.

A motor drive was purchased and installed by Roger.

Roger purchased and installed a motor drive.

The bid was won by a company that used bidding software.

A company that used bidding software won the bid.

A successful project was expected by all the staff.

All the staff expected a successful project.

Passive voice is usually awkward and unclear. Active voice is usually clear, emphatic, and flowing. It is also direct. Thus, good writers prefer active voice because we want interesting information to flow in a clear and direct manner for our readers. Readers prefer active voice (whether they are aware of it or not), because it decreases the amount of mental work required for understanding the text. People naturally have a more positive reaction to active voice than they do to passive voice. In many circles, especially technical fields like engineering, law, and medicine, writers falsely assume passive voice makes them look more "professional." Don't fall into that trap. 

You can express some things better with passive voice, but usually it is better to rewrite the thought such that passive voice isn't necessary. Every instance of it reduces directness. That's not always bad, but it usually is.

Tips on making sure you have active voice:

  • Use Word's grammar checker, making sure the settings allow it to look for passive voice. You can teach yourself active voice writing by highlighting and checking one paragraph at a time. Rewrite and repeat.
  • If a sentence starts with "There is," you probably have passive voice. Read it closely.
  • Verbs preceded by "was" or "is" are signs of passive voice construction. See the chart above for examples.

Verbs followed with "by" are signs of passive voice. See the chart above for examples.

For more tips on writing, click here.

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