Man jumping and shouting. Helen Bradford writer, editor and coach. Use active voice to improve your writing.

Use active voice

Although we usually use active voice in our speech, we often use passive voice when we write. You’ll become a better writer if you can recognise active and passive voice in your writing and know when to use them.

The subject in a sentence is the person or thing that is doing something. When you write with an active voice you put the subject at the beginning of a sentence. When you write with a passive voice you put the subject of the sentence towards the end, or don’t include it at all.

Here’s some sentences that present the same information in passive and active voice. Which style do you prefer?

Passive: The preferred approach is to get the local council’s consent to the plans before the house construction starts.

Active: John wants to get the local council’s consent to the plans before he starts building the house.

Passive: Further assistance can be obtained by emailing [email address]

Active: If you need help, email [email address]

Passive: A strategy is being developed to reduce the amount of plastic waste our company sends to the landfill each year.

Active: Our environment team is developing a new strategy to reduce the amount of plastic waste our company sends to the landfill each year.

Why it’s better to use active voice

Unless you’ve a reason to use passive voice, try and use active voice for at least 80 percent of your writing. Active voice has several advantages over passive voice:

  • It is livelier and more enthusiastic, which makes writing interesting for people to read.
  • It makes writers own the actions they’re writing about, so it tells readers who is doing what.
  • It makes writer simpler, so it’s easier for readers to understand.
  • It makes writing more specific, more personal and more modern, which makes writing more enjoyable to read.
  • It conveys a positive and friendly tone by using ‘you’, ‘we’ or actual names, which engages readers.

When it’s better to use passive voice

There are times when you don’t want to identify the subject in your sentence.

By naming a subject, you can assign blame in a situation when it’s inappropriate to do so. For example, an internal staff bulletin post on health and safety that boldly uses active voice to say: ‘Jane Brown set off the fire alarm when she burnt the toast in the level 5 kitchen,’ could avoid Jane’s reputation being tarnished by using passive voice to say: ‘Last week’s fire alarm was caused by toast burning in the level 5 kitchen.’

By naming a subject, you can draw attention to someone who’s irrelevant to the information you want to present. For example, a news report that uses active voice to accurately state: ‘Police Officer Jane Brown arrested someone in connection with the recent spate of burglaries,’ draws attention to the subject rather than the action. While Jane’s actions may be commendable, the reader is interested in the arrest itself rather than the officer who made it. This sentence would be better written in passive voice as: ‘Yesterday, a suspect was arrested in connection with the recent spate of burglaries.’

Contact me to help you apply active voice to your writing.