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How to write in the active voice – and to know when to use the passive

    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 words “by” and “was” often indicate 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.

    When to write in the passive voice

    Although you should write in the active voice more often than not, there are exceptions to every rule.

    For example, the passive voice can sometimes work better for online headlines, email subject lines or the first sentence of an article or page – provided the object is of more interest than the agent. The reason is that people often only see the first few words online before they drift off.

    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.

    To give another example, if you’re writing an article about how journalism academics are forming religious cults, then the intro Religious cults are being formed by journalism academics is going to work better online than Journalism academics are forming religious cults.

    However, I’m going to repeat that this only applies to headlines, subject lines and first sentences – especially online, where people are more likely to scan than read deeply. The rest of the time, you’re usually better off writing in the active voice.

    Another reason why people like to write in the passive voice is that it can allow them to avoid taking responsibility. Rather than writing We fired 100 employees, a company is more likely to write 100 employees were let go.

    However, this rarely works in the company’s favour. In the world of crisis communications, you’re usually better off being clear and direct – even if this goes against many executive’s instincts. But crisis communications is a topic for another day.

    And don’t worry: I promise I don’t chase kittens.

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