Tips for writing – The Active Voice

Elvis Elvis

Straight out of Strunk and White this week, my writing friends – use the active voice.

You hear that all the time, right? But what exactly is the active voice? How do you recognize it when you see it? How do you know when you have passive voice construction in your own work?

I love writing, but routinely fell asleep when diagraming sentences in English class. I learned most of what I know by reading, and hated the idea of tearing sentences apart to see how they worked. Still, there are times when it’s useful to know exactly what’s going on under the hood. A solid knowledge of this particular subject greatly improves your writing.

So let’s dig in!

Passive versus active voice is all about the verb and how it relates to your subject. Verbs refer to voice, tense, number, person, or mood. If the subject of your sentence is the agent of the verb’s action, you’ve got active voice. If the subject is the receiver, it’s passive voice.

These examples may help you understand the difference.

Tips for writing   The Active Voice

Active voice: The agent broke into the government office.

Passive voice: The government office was broken into by the agent.

See how that works? In the first example, the agent is the subject. Who broke into the office? The agent. He is quite clearly doing something (which will probably get him caught, setting up the exciting escape sequence that ends your story).

In the second example, the office is the subject. The office is the receiver. Something is done to it.

Think about it. You’re trying to write a really exciting story – all that great cloak and dagger stuff, secret agents breaking into things, steal government secrets. The whole nine yards. There’s all this tension, things are happening quickly, Tom Cruise is hanging upside down from an air vent hoping that droplet of sweat doesn’t touch the security sensor in the floor …

And the subject of your sentence is a boring wood-paneled room with a computer desk in one corner and a water cooler in the other?

Is it me, or is that just wrong?

In most cases, it is. There will be times when passive voice is appropriate (we’ll deal with that another time). For now, take another look. The active voice sentence is shorter. It’s tighter. Stronger. Faster. Anybody remember The Six Million Dollar Man?

Use the active voice. It keeps things moving!