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.

Learn more by enrolling in the Writing Essentials online course

Study at your own pace, whenever and wherever you want.

Taught by a former newspaper editor and journalist, this course is suited for anyone who wants to improve their writing – whether it’s for marketing, journalism, blogging or PR. It’s also ideal for those who want to improve their general writing skills.

It teaches all the basics, including:

  • how to write in the active voice
  • how to use positive language
  • using the right tone of voice and style
  • cutting copy
  • making your intros stronger
  • writing in plain English
  • how to write in the inverted pyramid style
  • top 10 news criteria (what makes a story interesting)
  • frontloading content
  • grammar and punctuation
  • proofreading tips
  • writing great headlines.

This is a practical course filled with exercises to allow you to put theory into practice.

Price: US$120

Find out more and enrol

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