Using the Active Voice to Strengthen Your Writing

By Ali Hale

Writing in the active voice means constructing sentences where the subject “acts”:

  • I threw the ball.
  • You are making too much noise.
  • Ben will eat popcorn and watch a movie tomorrow evening.

In each of these sentences, the subject (I, You and Ben respectively) performs the action of the verb (threw, making, will watch). The sentences are punchy, direct and make it clear who’s doing what.

Writing in the passive voice means constructing sentences where the subject is “passive” – acted upon, rather than agents of action. For many forms of writing, this can create an undesired effect: sentences often become confusing or simply dull.

  • The ball was thrown by me.
  • Too much noise is being made by you.
  • Tomorrow evening, popcorn will be eaten and a movie will be watched by Ben.

In each of these sentences, the subject (“the ball”, “too much noise”, “popcorn” and “a movie”) is being acted upon by the verb. With sentences written in this way, we can even eliminate the agent who is performing this action:

  • The ball was thrown.
  • Too much noise is being made.
  • Tomorrow evening, popcorn will be eaten and a movie will be watched.

These are all perfectly correct sentences, but the reader has the sense that something is missing. Who threw the ball? Who or what is making too much noise? And surely someone’s going to watch that movie and eat that popcorn?

Why is the Active Voice So Important?

If you’ve ever had a go at creative writing, you’ll probably have come across the advice to always write in the active voice. This is a good rule of thumb for most pieces of fiction: sentences in the active voice have energy and directness, both of which will keep your reader turning the pages!

Sentences written in the active voice are also less wordy than those in the passive voice – and cutting unnecessary words always improves a piece of writing, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction.

Students writing academic essays can sometimes tie themselves in knots trying to make sentences sound “formal” – which often (mistakenly) is taken to mean putting a sentence in the passive voice. Here’s an example (thanks to the UVic Writers’ Guide):

  • “The theme that was most dealt with by the 16th Century poets was . . .”

This could be rewritten in the active voice as:

  • “The 16th Century poets most often dealt with the theme of . . .”

This sentence is shorter, to the point, and the reader is less likely to switch off half-way through. It is just as “formal” and academically correct as the first one, but makes for a better piece of writing by being snappier.

How to Get Starting Using the Active Voice

Take a piece of writing that you’ve produced, and go through working out if each sentence is in the active or the passive voice. One clue to look out for when searching for sentences in the passive voice is the use of “was”:

  • “The theme that was most dealt with by the 16th Century poets…”
  • “His death was regretted.”

(Though note not all sentences using “was” are passive: “I was riding my bike” is active, “My bike was being ridden by me” is passive.)

Another clue is the use of “by” when referring to who did something:

  • “The report was written by me.”
  • “All of the mistakes were made by him.”

Once you’ve identified the passive sentences in your work, try rewriting each in the active voice. Do you think it makes a difference? If you’ve changed a lot of the sentences, read the whole piece through from start to finish – has the overall feel or tone changed? Take a word count of the original and the new version: how many words have you been able to cut?

If you get stuck, pop into the Daily Writing Tips forums and post the paragraph or sentences that you’re struggling with!

Tips and Tricks for Using the Active Voice

Use the active voice when you want your writing to be simple, direct, clear and easy to read. If you’re not very confident about your writing, using the active voice can be an easy way to improve a dull or lifeless piece of prose.

However, don’t make the mistake of thinking that you always need to use the active voice. Sometimes, it’s perfectly appropriate to phrase a sentence in the passive voice: just be aware that you’re doing this, and make sure you know why.

For example, using the passive voice can be an excellent way to avoid assigning responsibility for a job or problem. Sometimes this can be a useful and tactful way to phrase things in business writing:
“Mistakes were made.”
“The files will be sent as soon as possible.”
“All our records have been lost.”

In Elements of Style http://www.bartleby.com/141/strunk5.html, Strunk gives the rule “Use the active voice” but admits that:

This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.

  • The dramatists of the Restoration are little esteemed to-day.
  • Modern readers have little esteem for the dramatists of the Restoration.

The first would be the right form in a paragraph on the dramatists of the Restoration; the second, in a paragraph on the tastes of modern readers. The need of making a particular word the subject of the sentence will often, as in these examples, determine which voice is to be used.

At school and university, many people are taught not to use “I” in scientific or academic writing. (Modern stylistic advice does not generally prohibit using “I” in this way, but it’s a good idea to check your institution’s guidelines.) Using the passive voice does allow you to avoid the agent performing the action, for example:

  • “I performed an experiment to test the rate of the reaction.” (active)

can be rewritten as:

  • “An experiment was performed to test the rate of the reaction.” (passive).

In general, though, make sure the majority of your sentences are in the active voice: your writing will be livelier and more engaging, encouraging your readers to keep going.

Further Reading on the Active Voice

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23 Responses to “Using the Active Voice to Strengthen Your Writing”

  • Benjamin Baxter

    Could you describe how Show, Not Tell, that mantra of modern English teachers, fits in with the passive voice?

    In reading my students’ writing, I notice that most of their telling is in the passive voice, and most of their showing is in the active voice.

    Am I correct in telling them about this connection, however convenient and effective it is?

  • tyf

    Nice Blog!

    Can I ask, what is more correct:

    If it is said to you: what are the three…

    or

    If it was said to you: what are the three…

    are both right, or one better than the other?

  • Ali

    I agree there’s some correlation, yes, but I’m not sure it’s inevitable. For example:

    “Joe was very angry yesterday.” = telling (but active voice)

    “Yesterday, Joe threw a chair across the room so hard that it knocked a sizeable dent in the office door.” = showing (and active voice)

    It is possible to write a “showing” sentence in the passive voice — I’d argue that this one “shows” Joe’s anger rather than “tells” the reader about it:

    “Yesterday, a sizeable dent was knocked in the office door when a chair was thrown across the room by Joe.” = showing (and passive voice)

    Hope that helps!

  • Lori

    This statement (In general, though, make sure the majority of your sentences are in the active voice: your writing will be livelier and more engaging, encouraging your readers to keep going.) must be true…because I read the entire article. Thanks so much…

    I

  • Lillie Ammann

    I’m glad to see you cover the topic of passive voice so well, in particular how active voice helps eliminate unnecessary words. I touched on active vs. passive voice in my guest post at Poewar Writer’s Resource Center: http://www.poewar.com/get-rid-of-ugly-wordiness-how-to-cut-your-novel-down-to-size/

  • Michel

    Hi, In the specific example
    “His death was regretted.”
    I cannot think of a way to rewrite that without specifying who regretted his death…
    “They regretted his death” makes me want to know who they are
    “We regretted his death” is more specific, but excludes anyone else

    If we had
    “His death was regretted by many.”
    it becomes
    “Many regretted his death”
    which makes me feel that some did not…

    Am I picking nits here?

  • Ali

    @Lori — Glad it worked! 😉 And hope you found the article useful.

    @Michel — I’m not sure I quite understand your question?

    “His death was regretted” is in the passive voice.

    “I regretted his death” or “We regretted his death” is in the active voice.

    If your question is whether using the passive voice is desirable in this case … yes, it might well be! It depends on the context.

    Ali

  • Curtis

    Please tell the girl in your pic at the start of this page she has beautiful teeth and an even more gorgeous nose!

  • Michel

    Ali: Yes, I meant that in that particular case, I would prefer the passive version since the active version would cover less people unless there is a version I could not think of…

    PS: Is there a new setting that mails me ALL comments to ALL questions suddenly?

  • Bhavin Botadra

    Thanks for the tip, I will try to put into action from nowonwards.

  • Tim

    Does writing solely in the active not give rise to a listing of actions as the first person narrative staggers along…?

  • barry myatt

    of all the writing tips out there this site is pretty good, it helps me as i am on my first book.

  • Rachel

    can u gve me other exmple of active voice?

  • Melany Mcknight

    i dont have nothing to say on this subject right now

  • Allen McDonnell

    I don’t have anything to say about this subject

  • paul dedios

    im sure this is passive “the boy was called

  • josh

    Is it possible to write in active voice in business writing when you cannot refer to I, us or we? What if our style says to refer to “the organisation”.

    Eg. The organisation planted more than 1,000 trees as part of a Forestry Regrowth Plan at South Yurra. – active

    “More than 1,000 trees were planted at South Yurra as part of a Forestry Regrowth Plan.” is this passive? but sounds better

  • Angela

    My daughter has been sick for 3 days and is not getting better,what should i do?…….is that sentence active or passive?

  • Jaasiel Blue

    Today is a very beautiful I think I will go for a walk at the park ……..is that sentence passive or active?

  • Norvin Gabriel Jr

    “Tonight assignments will be finished by Norvin Gabriel before deadline.” This is obviously passive, honestly I prefer and always have active writing in most everyday text. Now when it comes to articulating in the form of poems and other personal writings when i find my self really trying to get a point across, especially not aggressively then i tend to lean towards passive writing. Its only fitting that you use the proper style for the mood you are scribing your text in.

  • Samantha Burke

    I myself believe that using the active voice will definitely strengthen a person’s vocabulary and make them sound more proficient. Like I have always been one of the people that say’s what is on their mind no matter how it comes out; Either professional or non professional, but now I know all I have to do is switch it around a little and add a little bit more punch and I can sound as proficient as I would like. Active voice is a nice subject to learn about. Thanks a lot!

  • Wanda

    I can used the active voice seen much better. But i lean how write what i say right now. I just have do it more.

  • Angel Overton

    I think active is one of the best ways to express something more personal rather than the passive. It makes the doc. or literature more interesting to read, reading what is happening, instead of what has happened or will happen (sometimes).

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