One writing technique that was really drilled into me while I was earning my English degree was to use an active voice. About half of my assignments would come back to me with circled notes reading, “This would be so much stronger if it were active,” then, “use active voice,” and finally, “active!!”
My professors were right. Using an active voice can do a lot for any written text. Among its many benefits for the reader, active voice:
- Puts them in the moment;
- Generates a stronger connection to the action;
- Turns the call to action into a command;
- Makes it easier for those for whom English is a second language or who comprehend text at a lower reading level to better understand the message.
It sounds pretty great, doesn’t it? And the good news is that it’s pretty easy to do…once you understand the grammar behind it.
An active voice uses active sentences. Every sentence has a subject and a verb, and many of them also have an object thrown in. (There are a lot of other parts of speech that can be added, but these three are the most important for this exercise.)
Subject = the person, place or thing that is doing the action
Verb = the action (or, the thing that is being done)
Object = the person, place or thing receiving the action
Or, as I think of it:
Subject = the person
Verb = what the person is doing
Object = what the person is doing it to
What is a Passive Sentence and How Can I Make It Active?
The difference between passive and active sentences is not necessarily the tense of the verb (thrown vs. throw vs. threw, etc.). The difference is actually syntax, or the structure of the sentence. In simple terms, without the grammar jibber-jabber, a passive sentence orders the parts of speech as object+verb+subject while an active sentence goes subject+verb+object.
For example, the sentence, “The rock was thrown by the boy,” lists the parts of speech as object+verb+subject, which means it’s passive. Boooo!!
Luckily for us, we know the formula for an active sentence is subject+verb+object, so all that needs to be done is a bit of a word scramble to get it in the correct order. (We’ll also lose a few words and change the verb’s tense, but speaking conventions that are hardwired into your brain from years of writing and speaking will undoubtedly do all that for you).
By doing this, the passive “The rock was thrown by the boy” becomes the active “The boy threw the rock.” Doesn’t that sound so much better?
You might notice that changing the sentence to be active also included a few benefits for the writer. Writing in an active voice:
- Uses fewer words, making the writing more concise and efficient;
- Creates a faster-moving narrative, which makes for easier writing and more engaging reading;
- Cleans up the sentence and helps prevent grammatical mistakes.
Really, using an active voice is a win-win for everyone. Try it for yourself and revel in the delight you and your readers will enjoy. Of course, grammar is tricky, so if you need any help getting started, contact me today.
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