Activate That Passive Voice

Why add worrying about writing in active versus passive voice to your plate?  Because you want to keep your reader’s attention.  Active voice sentences are more interesting and more concise, as well as stronger and clearer than those generated in passive voice.

First, a quick reminder.

Active voice writing is all about the sentence subject’s doing the acting.  Passive voice writing makes those subjects victim to the action.  For example:

    A bill was passed by the Senate.  The action happened to the bill because the Senate did the acting.  This sentence uses passive voice.

    The Senate passed the bill.  Ah ha.  The Senate is in action, so this is active voice.  Action, active.  Got it?

Try another.

    Your trusty computer can be programmed to identify passive sentences.   Whether you or your computer guru makes the changes, the acting is still happening to the computer.   Passive sentence.

    You can program your trusty computer to alert you to passive sentences.  You, the subject, are doing the acting so this is an active voice sentence. 

Good books are written in active voice.  We speak in active voice.  Even white papers today are written in active voice.  Improve the “grabability” (readability) of your writing by changing passive voice to active voice at least 80% of the time.

Tell Me More

So glad you asked.  So we’ve got the taking action subject for active voice and the “what just happened to me?” for the passive voice.  Other telltale signs of passive voice include the use of:

    –       To be verbs — is, are, was, were, am, be — along with another verb that often ends in ed.  These contribute to (yawn) less interesting sentences.  Drop the passive and put more movement in your writing.

        The crowd was captured off guard when the magician worked his trick.

        Vs. The trick worked and the magician held the crowd in his hand.

    –       By followed by a place, person or thing.  The “by” approach lengthens the sentence unnecessarily.  Go active voice for shorter sentences with more bang.

        Email should not be used by employees to send personal messages at work. 

        Vs.   Employees should not email personal messages at work. 

        Or   Do not email personal messages at work. 

    –       Not assigning responsibility for the action.

        Your proposal was misplaced.  If you said “George misplaced the proposal,” that would be active but George did the misplacing.  By simply saying the proposal was misplaced and not who did it, there is no subject.  Passive voice is a great way to shift the blame.

Technical Tricks

Enlist your computer in your drive to improve readability. 

    –       MAC users, for steps to turn your spelling and grammar tool into a passive sentence indicator, click here.

    –       MS Word users, to set your computer to signal passive sentences as you type, click here.

    –       Anyone who wants to question his “to be or not to be” usage can click here to enter draft copy.  


Passive voice is not incorrect.  It allows the writer to talk about things that happened in the past and/or not assign blame.  However, active voice drives the reader at a different pace; a stronger, attention-getting rhythm.

Increased attention = increased readability.  Which do you think makes for a more competitive edge?


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