Monday, January 15, 2007

A Writing Life

A Writing Life is a Monthly Feature written by JJ Murphy for WITS Newsletter.

Several of my clients write in passive voice. My job is to find the most powerful words to express their message. Consider the following sentences:

The protective covering should be removed before use.
Remove the protective covering before use.

See the difference?

Here are a few tips for helping you figure out whether to use active voice or passive voice in your message:

1. Does the subject perform the action? Compare these sentences:

The new law was approved by the town board.
The town board approved the new law.

Subject: town board
Action: approved.

This is a good reason to use the active voice.

2. Does someone else perform the action instead of the subject?
Consider these sentences:

Her dog was hit by a car.
The car hit her dog.

The car is an inanimate object, so dog is really the subject. The action, hit, happened to the dog.

This is a good reason to use the passive voice.

3. What if you can’t tell? Consider these sentences:

The door is locked.
This test could be difficult.

Notice that these verbs are forms of to be, which some scholars call linking verbs. There is no action, strictly speaking; these verbs indicate a condition which is neither active nor passive.

4. What is the emphasis of your message?
Consider these sentences:

One gram of salt was added to the first mixture.
The researcher added one gram of salt to the first mixture.

If your emphasis is on the mixture, then the first sentence (passive voice) is appropriate. If your emphasis is on the researcher, then use the active voice in the second sentence.

5. What do you want the reader to know?
Consider these sentences:

Mistakes were made and money was lost.
The treasurer did not send the deposit in time, so we had to rent a more expensive suite.

If your goal is to explain without blaming, then using the passive voice in the first sentence is effective. The second sentence, which uses active voice, is both more direct and more specific.

Passive voice typically does not identify the actor or the action, but you run the risk of making sloppy or misleading statements.

If you think about how you want readers to respond, you will be able to decide when to use active voice and when to use passive voice.

JJ Murphy is a freelance writer who helps companies, small businesses and individuals to express their awareness and dedication to developing sustainable technology and to preserve our natural resources. She writes articles for natural magazines, hiking publications, simple living publications in print and online. She also creates curricula to help public schools home schooling groups, private schools, wilderness camps, adult learning groups, and continuing education programs stretch and expand their students’ knowledge. Visit her website for articles, wild food recipes and for more information, including JJ’s favorite places for gear and supplies.


Devon Ellington said...

Passive voice drives me nuts when I read it, unless it's a character's speech pattern. (Okay, it's a short drive, but we won't go there).

However, I find in early drafts, I use passive far too much, and I have to catch it in the rewrites. It's one of those terribly habits I'm working to change.

Devon Ellington
Ink in My Coffee

sylvia c. said...

Great tips..thanks so much!

This was useful information I will certainly keep in mind while writing.

Sylvia C.

SusanW said...

Helpful examples!