Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Keep Them Active

"I have been honored by you because I have been given this award." The previous sentence, although grammatical, sounds stilted. Twice I used the passive voice with "have been honored" and "have been given."

Now I’ll flip it around and write the sentence in the active voice: "You have honored me because you gave me this award." Both examples are grammatical, but the second is clearer, stronger, more direct, and uses fewer words. That classifies itself as better writing.

We call this the principle: Prefer the active, avoid the passive.

Beginning writers often don’t grasp the importance of this principle. "It reads fine either way," they say. Sometimes they insist, "The passive voice sounds better." They mistakenly assume that the passive voice lends their work authority, perhaps even an elegant quality. In reality, the passive voice sounds pompous or limp. Why not strive for directness and clarity by using as few words as possible?

I want to be clear on the difference. Active refers to someone doing things as opposed to events simply occurring. "Irene delivered the package to Melvin the next morning," compared to, "The package was delivered to Melvin the next morning." Below, not only is the active voice stronger, but the passive voice requires two extra words.

Arlene was infuriated by his behavior. (Passive)

His behavior infuriated Arlene. (Active).

The active voice is stronger and professionals remember that as they write.


  1. Cec,
    Great reminder of a simple rule that makes a world of difference in anyone's writing. Keep the tips coming, and thanks for sharing.

  2. Active voice is so much better and is more engaging. People want to not just know what happens, but to see what characters are experiencing.

    I enjoy the summary that you put at the end of each post.

    We are looking forward to having you come to the Maine Fellowship of Christian Writers Conference in August!



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