STAY ACTIVE!  The Art of Using Active Voice


  • What is active writing?

Simply put, when you engage in active writing, you construct the sentence so the subject does the action.  For example, consider the following sentences:

Jane drove the truck. 

Firefighters rescued the man.

In the first sentence, Jane did the action, which is driving the truck.  In the second sentence, firefighters did the action of saving the man.

  • The opposite of active writing is passive writing which rearranges the sentence so the subject receives the action. Using the above sentences, we would rearrange them in the following manner:

The truck was driven by Jane.

The man was rescued by firefighters.

You can see the differences between these sentences.  The passive sentences slow down the action, and they are clunky.  If you were to read them out loud, they would not flow off the tongue.  Aside from that, check out how many additional words it took to write the passive version.  Two additional words for each.  So why do people use passive voice?  Many times people use the passive voice because they are not sure exactly who did the action.  For example, sometimes in broadcast news, we’ll get a press release that doesn’t have all of the answers to the who, what, when, where, why or how.  It isn’t anyone’s fault.  Many times, the people sending the release may not know the answer to some of those questions, but they need to get the information out there.  Let’s use crime as an example.  Law enforcement may not know who committed that crime.  So, we’ll put it on television to try to help them find the person responsible, and writers may use the passive voice to avoid writing “the suspect” in every sentence.  So they’ll instead write: “The victim was robbed at gunpoint.”  This particular example is a case where writers just need to get creative: “the suspect, the thief, the gunman.”

You may be also wondering is it an absolute “no no” to use passive voice?  Not at all.  There may be times you want to use the passive voice to emphasize something important.  For example, consider the sentence: “The swimmer was taken under by strong rip currents, but a lifeguard saved him.”  I wanted to highlight the swimmer and make him the focus, rather than making this active and showcasing the rip currents.

 Why should you use active voice?

  • As we illustrated, using active voice allows you to be more concise because it slashes the number of words you need to convey your thoughts. For broadcast professionals, fewer words helps the newscast pacing.
  • Active sentences are easier for the anchor to read in broadcast news.
  • Active sentences are easier for your audience/reader to understand. It helps with clarity.

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