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From passive voice to active voice

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If you're a writer, you're probably always looking for some way to get ahead in the game. What if I told you that there was one technique that could take your regular writing and make it pop? This technique is simple, anyone can use it to make their writing more effective, exciting and most importantly, professional. What is this technique? It's called writing in an active voice.

You might have heard the words passive voice and active voice before when it comes to writing, but what exactly do these words mean? Simply put, an active voice is a sentence where the subject is performing an action. Grammatically speaking, we would look a sentence like this

Tom hugged Sally.

If we look at the breakdown of this sentence, we can see that Tom is the subject, hugged is the action and Sally is the object. Subjection + Action + Object. The active voice is more alive and exciting than the passive voice. The active voice conveys a sense of action and movement, it makes the writing stronger and gives it a better punch.

Let's rearrange the sentence a little bit to find out how the passive voice would read.

Sally was hugged by Tom

Here, we find that everything is backward. Sally is now the subject, the action is being hugged and it doesn't have a lot of action to it. She's simply receiving an action and there's no amount of punch or energy to it Sally is entirely passive. That's where we get the word passive voice. The subject is active in the first sentence, but passive in the second sentence. This is a very simplified example, we will look at some more things that qualify a passive sentence a little later on.

First, we must ask the hard question, why avoid passive voice? Sometimes rules of language can be a little confusing and no one wants to adhere to arbitrary constraints on language. However, the simple explanation of why you should avoid passive voice is all about style more than anything. Style determines how a person perceives your work. When the language is passive, few people will be impacted by the strength of the writing. When there is energy in your words, you will convey a stronger sense of urgency.

Compare these two sentences below and determine which one reads better to you:

Jacob charged at the troll with his sword.


The troll was charged at by Jacob.

Quickly, you can see that there is a significant amount of energy in the first sentence. This conveys a sense of action, impact, and strength. The second sentence isn't wrong on a grammatical sense, but stylistically, it lacks the punch and energy of the first one When you are writing, your biggest challenge is drawing people into your words. Your words can either draw people in or push them away. If you don't avoid passive voice, you run the risk of boring your readers. If a reader becomes bored, you run the risk of them moving on to read something else. There are millions of things that a person could be reading with the click of a button, so there is no reason for them to engage with a work that isn't rewarding to them. This fact alone should motivate you to want to keep your voice as an active as possible.

So let's talk about some more rules that will help you identify passive voice in your writing. The easiest way to identify a passive voice is to always follow the “to-be” rule. There are various forms of to-be words such as is, was, are, were, have been, has been, will, will, etc. These words are the gateway to quickly identifying a sentence that is passive. The rule is simple, if a to-be word is followed by a past participle, then the sentence is passive. A past participle, if you don't remember, is a verb that ends in an -ed such as loved, hugged, touched, etc.
When you combine a to-be word with a past participle, you are most likely going to be finding out that your sentence is indeed written in the passive voice.

Susan was grabbed by the pirate. The pirate had been stabbed by Susan's protector. Susan was being saved by the handsome rogue.

All of these sentences are passive, and while they are functional in the fact that they convey information, they don't carry a lot of energy and excitement. Revising these sentences doesn't take much effort and provides you with a considerable amount of forward motion in your writing. This captures the imagination and can excite those who are reading. Remember, the more visceral and alive your work is, the better.

The pirate grabbed hold of Susan. Susan's protector lunged forward and stabbed the pirate. The handsome rogue saved Susan.

See how much more energy comes across in these words? They are basic changes to the structure of the sentence, but they are arranged in the correct order. The best way to avoid passive voice is to make a habit to start evaluating your writing every day.

Look for the simple combination of to-be words and past participles to determine if your writing is passive or not. Once you get in the habit of identifying them, all you have to do is rearrange the structure and your writing will take on a much stronger voice.

You must remember that when it comes to learning to write in the active voice at all times, that practice will make perfect. Writing is nothing more than a collection of habits and inclinations. Your writing habits are shaped by the discipline and importance that you place upon writing itself.

If you don't see the passive voice as something to avoid, you will never work to get rid of it however, if you understand and respect the active voice, if you make sure that you earnestly believe that the passive voice is inferior, you will have a much easier time getting into the discipline of sitting down and rooting out the passive voice.

Practice as much as you can, each time you find yourself writing in the passive voice, stop and rewrite it then remind yourself why you are rewriting. Remember, the best type of writing is the kind that can draw readers in and active voice is the best choice for that.

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