How to write in the active voice

Writing in the active voice is key to making your copy sharper and easier to read. Yet while many people have heard about it, there’s a lot of confusion about what it means.

Some think it’s about tone or style, others think it’s about tense.

Instead, active voice is about having the subject perform the action of the verb – rather than being acted upon by it.

For example, instead of writing The kitten that was chased by Dan, which is passive, write Dan chased the kitten.

In other words, the subject does something to the object of the sentence.

To give another example, instead of writing:

Global warming is caused by humans

write

Humans cause global warming.

Note that the word “by” often indicates passive voice.

Active voice is usually the best way to write for three reasons:

  1. It lets readers know immediately who is doing what.
  2. It makes the sentence shorter.
  3. The further apart the object is from the subject, the more likely the sentence will be confusing.

Active voice can also work well in headlines. For example, Man bites dog is more direct than Dog was bitten by man.

Having said that, passive voice can sometimes work better for online headlines if the object is of more interest than the agent. The reason is that people often only see the first few words of a headline.

As such, Pulitzer Prize won by Dan Kaufman would grab more people than Dan Kaufman wins Pulitzer Prize as most people (with the possible exception of my mother) would be more interested in the Pulitzer than little old me.

Usability expert Jakob Nielsen wrote a good article on using passive voice for headlines for those who want to read more.

Oh yes: I promise I don’t chase kittens.

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