Business Writing Essentials

Active Voice

"Use active voice!" is the mantra of most teachers of clear writing. It's good advice, but how do we do this while editing? There are three ways to change passive voice to active voice:

1. Transpose the subject.

passive form:
     doee {is|was|..} Xed by doer

Ann was asked by Bob.

active form:
     doer Xed doee

Bob asked Ann.

2. Extract the subject.

passive form:
     in the A the B {is|was|..} Xed

In the file the job was listed.

active form:
     the A Xed the B

The file listed the job.

3. Supply the subject.

passive form:
     it {is|was|..} Xed that C

It was decided that Ben must go.

active form:
     someone Xed that C

We decided that Ben must go.

Notice how passive voice forces us to write sentences that are longer and convoluted. If it takes you two seconds to comprehend a sentence written in active voice, it will typically take you three seconds to comprehend the same sentence when it's written in passive voice. Try to avoid making people take 50% more time to read what you write.

Use passive voice sparingly. Keep in mind, though, that passive voice is the preferred way to go in certain situations:

the doer is unimportant:

The network will be monitored.

the doer is confidential:

The file was destroyed accidentally.

the doer is unknown:

The system can be hacked.

to avoid being blunt:

The network crash was caused by his emails.

to maintain flow:

[paragraph 1 ends:] ... These activities create a corrupted file.

[paragraph 2 begins:] Corrupted files are isolated by network administrators ...

Lesson: Active Voice
Module: Clarity
Course: Business Writing Essentials