Did you spot the slightly less than mildly funny joke in the title? If not, this post might be particularly useful. 

The first step in improving your writing is understanding what the passive voice and the active voice are and why one is much better to use than the other.

Here is an example of a passive and an active sentence:

Passive voice: “The active voice will be written by me.”

Active voice: “I will write in the active voice.”

While you can see they are different, you may not yet understand how to recognize one from the other. We will discuss this on another occasion, along with strategies for identifying the passive and revising in the active voice.

Why does it matter?

At the moment, the details are less important for our purposes. What is important is understanding why it matters which we use in our writing.

Everyone, both native and non-native speakers, overuses the passive when formulating their ideas. There is a reason for this. We are usually uncertain of what we want to say until we get it down in a first and second draft. Passive writing, which you might think is obvious from the name, implies passivity, which I argue is a natural result of this uncertainty.

Active voice comes from more carefully considering our ideas and reformulating them, not for ourselves, but for our readers. It is a sign that the author has done the hard work of thinking through their ideas and revising to make the text a) relevant to the reader, b) easy to understand, and c) worthy of consideration.

Astute readers let the use of passive voice tell them two things about a text:

  1. Has the writer done the hard work of really considering what they want to say and revising their writing for me to read?
  2. Instead of reading this, should I go get coffee?

Another way of saying this is that excessive passive voice is a warning flag for readers that the author has not yet really put the time and effort into the text for the reader to invest their own time in reading it. Even if readers do not think about this strategy consciously, they most likely understand the telltale sign intuitively. The dominant use of active voice, on the other hand, tells the reader the author took their writing task seriously and that their ideas should be considered.

You can view active voice as the first step in getting your foot in the door with the reader and passive voice as slamming that door shut.

Active contra passive voice is a rich and interesting subject that I’ll be exploring in future posts.

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