If most of your writing experience has been in school or in a corporate environment, you might have unwittingly picked up some bad habits.
One of these habits is using the passive voice where you should be using the active voice.
Say what? Let’s start with a very quick grammar lesson:
Quick (and pain-free) grammar lesson
The active voice puts the subject (the person or group that performs an action) up front.
The passive voice puts the object (the target of the action) up front.
Here are a couple of simple examples:
- Active voice: Jane kicked the ball.
- Passive voice: The ball was kicked by Jane.
- Active voice: Google released a new update.
- Passive voice: A new updated was released by Google.
(If you want more examples, check out Purdue OWL’s Active versus Passive Voice handout.)
Why you want to use the active voice as much as possible
The active voice is simpler and more direct. It’s normally the best way to make your point.
The passive voice can sound academic and formal; this isn’t usually the best tone to adopt in a blog post. It can also be distancing, and sometimes confusing.
Compare these two sentences:
- Active voice: Three experts spoke about content marketing.
- Passive voice: Content marketing was spoken about by three experts.
The second, passive version is wordier, and sounds a little convoluted.
The passive voice can also make it unclear who is taking (or should be taking) an action. For instance:
Passive: The comment policy must be followed.
We can assume that this means the policy must be followed by readers, but without much context, it could also mean that it should be followed by moderators or the blogger. It would be clearer to write:
Active: Readers must follow the comment policy.
By using the active voice, you make your content more engaging for the reader – and easier to take in. Go through your draft blog posts, keeping an eye out for instances of the passive voice. Rewriting those sentences will bring your post to life.
Rewrite the following short paragraph using the active voice:
The session was led by David. At the end, several questions were asked. These were expertly answered. The session was very much enjoyed.
When the passive voice is useful
The passive voice isn’t always the wrong choice, though. It can be handy in specific situations, such as:
- When you want to focus on the target of an action.
- When you want to avoid assigning blame or responsibility.
The passive voice is quite often used in guest post introductions:
Active: Tom wrote today’s great blog post.
Passive: Today’s great blog post was written by Tom.
Why? Because the blog post is the focus: the fact that Tom wrote something isn’t so important to the reader (unless they happen to be Tom’s friend!) as the fact that there’s a great blog post for them to read.
The passive voice can be used to avoid blaming someone because it allows you to remove the subject of the sentence entirely. For instance:
Active: Sarah accidentally included some incorrect facts in yesterday’s post.
Passive: Some incorrect facts were accidentally included in yesterday’s post.
If you are using the passive voice, make sure it's genuinely appropriate, though, rather than accidental.
By using the active voice, you can make your writing much more engaging and lively. If you have any questions, or if you’ve got an example that you’re not sure how to rewrite, just let us know in the comments.