Girl with weights staring into mirror
Apr 21, 2009
Amanda O'Donovan

Keep Your Writing Active

You may not be aware that you’re doing it, because self-diagnosis is rare. And, although many have searched for the cure, few people find it without expert help. It’s been responsible for destroying entire swathes of corporate content with its cloudy imprecision, unnecessary wordiness and lack of accountability. I’m talking about “Passive Voice,” and it’s very likely hiding in a piece of copy near you.

As a corporate writer, I’ve programmed myself to weed out passive voice and turn sentences into active, energetic, informative business tools. However, I find that many of my clients still struggle to identify a passive sentence, let alone fix it. Why is this so important, you ask? Wouldn’t we be better concentrating energy on clawing our way out of recession or brokering world peace? Possibly, but the problem is that a passive sentence is such a pale imitation of its active counterpart. It invariably contains more words, will probably be impersonal, will more than likely be evasive and generally conveys less information. Making an emotional connection with your audience is vital in a world of short attention spans, and you’ll do that far better if your writing voice is “active.”

Take these two sentences:

“Passive voice is used by our company to ensure that we are shielded from the need for clarity of expression.”

“We use passive voice to avoid expressing ourselves clearly.”

I’ve underlined the two instances of passive voice in the first sentence. When trying to eliminate passive voice, watch out for any verbs with an “ed” or “en” ending. The word “by” after a verb is also a giveaway. And know that when you write in passive voice, you risk tying yourself up in knots, quite apart from using more words than necessary to complete a sentence.

On a positive note, you can use passive voice to great effect to deflect attention from what’s really going on. It’s a perfect vehicle when you want to avoid having to define something or take responsibility for it. If you’re looking to evade or conceal, it’ll be your first choice. But, if your aim is to communicate clearly and engage your audience, you’d better keep your writing active.

Compare these two sentences:

“An iPod was presented to the contest winner.”

“Ruby presented an iPod to the contest winner.”

Which is less abstract and more informative? I’ll leave you to decide. Oh, and before I go, do you know that you can configure Word to identify passive sentences? By adding a style check to your spelling and grammar review, Word will give you a slap on the wrist every time you use passive voice. I’ve experimented with it and, although it’s not perfect, it’s certainly a step in the right direction:

Click File and select Options

Select Proofing

Click the Settings button

Under the Styles heading, select “passive sentences”


Amanda O’Donovan is a Toronto-based freelance writer. You can contact her at 416 456 3859 or