Readable Writing Rule #6: Favor the Active Voice

Which is better, the active or passive voice?

When writing a non-fiction book, should you write about the actor, or the action? In other words, should you use the active voice or the passive voice?

As a general rule, the active voice is better than the passive voice.

The active voice is more authoritative, to the point, and, well, more active than the passive voice.

The passive voice is useful but tends to be overused, watering down the text and slowing the reader.

What’s active and what’s passive?

Think of sentences as containing an actor and an action. If the actor does the action, the sentence is active. If the action is done by the actor, the sentence is passive.

  • “Joe hit Bob,” is active. (The actor, Joe, performs an action.)
  • “Bob was hit by Joe,” is passive. (The action, hitting, was done by Joe.)
  • “The nurse gave an injection,” is active. (The actor, the nurse, performs an action.)
  • “The injection was given by the nurse,” is passive. (The action, injecting, was performed by the nurse.)
  • “Greg is taking medicine,” is active. (The actor, Greg, performs an action.)
  • “The medicine is being taken by Greg,” is passive. (The action, taking medicine, was performed by Greg.)

Sentences may get more complex, but the idea is the same

In the sentence, “Determined to find chocolate milk, Howard drove his new car six miles across town to the market,” “Howard” is the actor, and “drove” is the action. This is an active sentence because the actor (Howard) is acting (driving). The sentence becomes passive if worded like this: “The new car was driven six miles across town to the market by Howard, who was determined to find chocolate milk.”

Notice how vigorous and direct the active approach is:

  • “Joshua passed the boards.”
  • “Melanie purchased a stethoscope.”
  • “The Ethics Committee reported…”
  • “Cholera ravaged the town.”

The reader immediately knows who or what is acting, and can form a mental image.

Images come a little slower with passive sentences

Passive sentences are not as strong or direct as active sentences:

  • “The boards were passed by Joshua.”
  • “The stethoscope was purchased by Melanie.”
  • “It was reported by the Ethics Committee that…”
  • “The town was ravaged by the disease.”

Active sentences focus attention on the actor, passive sentences on the action

If you were writing about Thomas Edison you would say, “Thomas Edison invented the telephone.” Saying, “The telephone was invented by Thomas Edison,” switches the emphasis to the telephone.

Since active construction focuses on the actor, it’s easy to assign credit or blame when the writing is active. For example, given the sentence: “The pounds are made to melt away,” you don’t know who to thank. Explaining that, “The Smith Diet melts the pounds away,” tells the reader who is responsible. Some people use the passive voice on purpose, hoping to weasel out of a problem:

  • “Design errors crept into the study,” is a way of trying not to say, “I made a mistake.”
  • “The meta-analysis was conducted in a less-than-optimal manner,” is a “don’t look at me” way of explaining, “Our analysis was bad.”

Whoever wrote the two sentences shown above was obviously trying to keep the boss thinking about the “design errors” and the “meta-analysis,” not about the blunderer who made the mistakes!

The passive voice can be useful

There are times when you don’t want to focus on the actor, because the actor is not as important as the action is. For example:

  • “Workers were hired and the job was done.”
  • “Based on the examination and test results, a diagnosis of depression was made.”
  • “Grants were given for development.”
  • “The book was released in 1982.”

Sometimes the actor is unknown:

  • “Money was developed to facilitate trade.”
  • “Primitive medical techniques were refined through the centuries.”

The passive voice is also nice for a change: “The right atrium pumps the blood down to the right ventricle. The right ventricle contracts, sending the blood to the lungs. Inside the lungs, the blood exchanges its carbon dioxide for fresh oxygen before returning to the left side of the heart. Rich with fresh oxygen, the blood is then propelled through the aorta to the body.” After three active sentences, a passive sentence (“Rich with fresh oxygen…”) is a pleasant change in tone.

Finally, the passive voice can be just what you want to say: “Our defense against disease is ably handled by the immune system,” or “Wastes are filtered from the fluid by the kidneys.”

Favor the active voice, using the passive when necessary, and for variety

However, you should avoid sentences so passive as to be unreadable:

“Posing for our cameras was enjoyed by natives, except in those places where there was the belief that the taking of an image robbed the person of the soul.” Three passive constructions in one sentence (“was enjoyed by the natives,” “there was the belief” and “the taking of an image”) makes the sentence awkward. Instead, try: “The natives liked posing for our camera, except in those places where they believed having their picture taken robbed them of their souls.”

There’s no absolute rule on active and passive sentences. Overuse is made of the passive, however, so favor the active.

Try activating these sentences

  1. Instructions were given to the spy.
  2. It was requested by this lawyer that his client take a lie detector test.
  3. No solvents were shown by the solvent survey in the blood or urine.
  4. It was revealed upon questioning that the dangers of smoking were known to the man.
  5. The students were taught anatomy by the professor.

Suggested answers:

  1. The spy received instructions.
  2. The lawyer requested that his client take a lie detector test.
  3. The solvent survey found no solvents in the blood or urine.
  4. When questioned, the man admitted knowing that smoking was dangerous.
  5. The professor taught the students anatomy.

For more ways to make your writing sparkle, see “Readable Writing Review.”

I’m Barry Fox, a New York Times #1 bestselling ghostwriter. I help executives, entrepreneurs, philanthropists and top professionals create top-notch memoirs and business books. I can also guide you through the self-publishing process. Call me at 818-917-5362.