Active Voice Attracts Readers

Passive sentence construction drains the power and focus of your writing. and for many of us, it is so natural that we don’t realize we are doing it. Engage your readers with active voice and reduce your use of passive voice. Passive voice can make your reader sleepy.

In general terms, passive voice means a combination of a verb with “was,” “is,” “were,” “will be,” or any other form of the verb, “to be.” The accompanying verb will usually end in “ed.”

Here is an example.

“The first day of my new job will always be remembered by me with terror.”

Rewrite this as, “I will always remember the first day of my new job with terror.”

In this instance, be remembered and remember are, respectively, the passive and active forms.

The meaning of this sentence has a lot of potential power. “Terror” activates strong emotion. However, “be remembered” distances the emotional impact. “Remember” in its active form makes it more immediate.

Sometimes Passive Voice is Appropriate

Writing has its rules, but none of them are ironclad.

The most common use of passive voice is in situations where either we don’t know or don’t care who caused a situation.

“In the resulting shootout, three people were killed.” We don’t know who killed them, and to say, “In the resulting shootout, three people died” doesn’t specify the violent nature of their deaths.

“She was robbed.” Again, we don’t know who did it. Rewriting the sentence to say, “An unknown person robbed her” would subtract from the impact of the act. People might focus on wondering who this person was, but the important fact is that she was robbed.

“Her teeth were shaped like daggers.” We don’t care who shaped them, and we don’t want to meet her.

“The meat was overcooked, but we were hungry and ate it.” We don’t care who overcooked it. Hunger is the point of this sentence.

Why People Often Use the Passive Voice

People usually write technical or business pieces in passive voice. That, I suppose, gives them a distant and impersonal tone that someone decided long ago was appropriate to such writing.

You, however, unless you are writing such a piece, don’t want a distant and impersonal tone. You want to communicate with your reader. You want them to feel that you are writing for them. Active verb forms convey this.

Author Stephen King believes that passive form suggests a kind of timidity about direct assertion. He suggests that cautious, unassertive authors take refuge in the tone of technical writing.

If you come from a technical writing background, I recommend that you pay special attention to searching your writing for use of passive voice, as it will be automatic for you. You’ll see how much more alive your writing becomes with the increased use of active voice.

Authorities generally recommend limiting passive tense to less than 10 percent of your writing. That doesn’t mean you need to eliminate this form entirely. Use it deliberately to vary your sentence construction.

Your word processor likely has a way to give you feedback on your use of passive voice,

As I said earlier, no rules in writing are ironclad. What matters is whether you’re breaking one out of ignorance or on purpose.

In other words, know the rules and break them only when it improves your writing.


Get additional tips on writing from my book, 52 Writing Tips: Fast and Easy Ways to Polish Your Writing. Order in our webstore.

Pat Iyer learned to write in passive voice when she trained as a nurse. With consistent practice, she got her use of  passive voice down to less than 5%.