Use the Active Voice for More Impactful Writing
We often lessen the impact of our writing by using the passive voice. In The Government Manager’s Guide to Plain Language, I offer some very practical guidance and examples that illustrate how government managers can add directness and impact to their communications, both with their staff and with the public. Give it a try with something you’ve written recently. See the difference?
PREFER THE ACTIVE VOICE
In an active sentence, the person or agency performing an action is the subject of the sentence. In a passive sentence, the person or item acted upon is the subject of the sentence.
Changing passive voice to active voice in your writing can add energy and cut wordiness. Consider the following two versions of the same basic message, which describes a supervisor’s actions:
All issues and questions were discussed and explained very clearly by my supervisor. Following the completion of each task, I received a full feedback that gave me an opportunity to reflect upon and improve my performance. I was given support in addressing my personal objectives such as improvement of interviewing skills and building technical and client knowledge.
My supervisor clearly explained all the issues and fully answered my questions. His comments after every task helped me to reflect upon and improve my performance. He constantly encouraged me to address my objectives, such as improving my interviewing skills and building my technical knowledge.
The first version, in passive voice, is wordier, weaker, and less direct. The second version, in active voice, is briefer, clearer, and more conversational or natural.
The active voice emphasizes who is doing something:
“My supervisor clearly explained all the issues and fully answered my questions.”
The actor (my supervisor) comes first in the sentence. The subject of the sentence does the action.
The passive voice emphasizes who or what is being acted upon:
“All issues and questions were discussed and explained very clearly by my supervisor.”
Or, the doer may not be mentioned in the passive sentence:
“All issues and questions were discussed and explained very clearly.”
To communicate effectively, write most of your sentences in the active voice. To change passive sentences to active, follow these four steps:
1. Find or supply the actors.
“An excellent job was done by Stacy.” Stacy is the actor.
2. Put the actor at the beginning of the sentence.
“Stacy . . .”
3. Replace the passive verb with an active verb.
“Stacy did . . .”
4. Make the subject of the passive sentence the direct object.
“Stacy did an excellent job.”
Of course, sometimes the passive voice is a better choice, such as when you need to point out an error or shortcoming in a diplomatic way. “A mistake was made in the last set of calculations” is more tactful than “You made a mistake in the last set of calculations.”
Excerpted with permission from The Government Manager’s Guide to Plain Language by Judith Gillespie Myers, PhD., a book in series The Government Manager’s Essential Library. © 2013 by Management Concepts, Inc. All rights reserved. www.managementconceptspress.com