I Choose the Active Voice

The Active Voice

I Choose the Active Voice  (Or Avoiding Passive Prose)

Active Voice - Passive Voice


I need the Active Voice! Since starting this blog, I have continuously overused the Passive Voice. In this article I examine what attributes the Active Voice has. I am seeking to understand the role of the Active Voice and his brother the Passive Voice. The relationship between Subject, Action, and Object is the focus of my attention. Learning to write in the Active Voice is a challenge. A challenge that I must confront to become a better blogger. Why bother? I bother because writing exposes an argument to feedback.

Active Voice key to SEO readability.
Getting a good SEO score is a work of art.

So far my feedback has been a failure to restrict my use of the Passive Voice to 10% or less. Whilst SEO and my SEO tools aren’t everything, it is nonetheless valuable feedback. How can I improve “readability?” In this article I seek to answer that question. I also seek to grapple with its implications – clarity and effectiveness. If improving my writing is improving my readability, then improving the readability improves the clarity and effectiveness of my work. I can begin to understand my thoughts and integrate my research. My writing needs to be readable, clear and effective. I need the active voice.

Teaser Quote

Use the Active Voice to write with emphasis and vigor.. That’s good advice as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. More complete advise would be to use the active voice – unless you have a good reason to use the passive voice.

Movement in the Active Voice

Great stories move us! Shakespeare takes us from one set of circumstances to another with a deft touch. In both physical location and psychological frame, Shakespeare moves us. For example, in Macbeth, he moves us from a state of innocence to a state of malevolent despair. Macbeth cannot wash the blood off his hands. Shakespeare also said “All the world’s a stage and men are merely actors.” Why is this significant? It is significant because at one level of interpretation, we are compelled to enact the movement. I, as the Tangent General, want to move you from one set of expectations to another through story. I am in this instance an actor and is my stage.

Stephen Wilbers, author of Keys to Great Writing, opens his chapter on action discussing the movement of a fly.

If you were standing before a group of people giving a speech… and a fly buzzed past your head, your audience would look away from you and watch the fly. It isn’t that what you are saying is less interesting than the fly (one would hope), but that your listeners’ attention naturally is attracted by movement. Any movement (p. 49).

Movement is thus critical in capturing and maintaining attention. The Actor’s responsibility to their audience is to move. The question then becomes how and when to move.

Story Vs Fact Sheet

Hume is an "Active" Voice in Philosophy
You can’t derive an Ought from an Is.

Hume is famous for declaring that you cannot derive “an Ought from an Is.” Simply put, an “Is” represents fact whereas an “Ought” tells a story. Wilbers argues that each sentence can tell a story, each sentence can move the audience further towards Point B and away from Point A. A beautiful example of this is the English language is the two word sentence “Jesus wept.” What Wilbers is describing is the power of Subject-Verb agreement. The Subject positions the reader and the verb provides the action. Or, as Wilbers writes:

As Joseph Williams advises in Style, if you want your writing to be vigorous, make your sentences tell stories. You can do this by using your subjects to name characters and your verbs to name their actions (p. 50).

The subject Acts upon the Object. Shakespeare wrote “to  be or not to be.” This is the grammatical structure of the active voice. Subject verb  Object. For this to work, a character is required. When a character does not naturally emerge, you must create one. How does this apply in dry academic writing though? Wilbers instructs the writer to personify the inanimate object. Personifying the inanimate object creates the subject, but there is still the verb to be reckoned with. Matching the verb in harmony with the subject creates action. The reader demands action and so to does SEO. With exquisite skill it is even possible to marry the verbs to a transcendental metaphor.

Movement Verbs and the Active Voice

Wilbers shows us how to create subject characters. Now we need to know how to engage our active verbs. In most academic writing discussions I have had, I have told my students to limit their use of adjectives. This is how powerful verbs are. Adjectives describe, that’s their primary function. Adjectives though, can turn your sentence from a story to a fact sheet. Verbs on the other hand, run, jump and dance. Verbs execute. They postulate. Verbs drive the readers attention from the

Active voice is only one voice for Stephen Wilbers
Wilbers discusses voices in writing and how to control them.

previous point to the next delicately and anonymously. The reader may say: I just want the facts, Jack! It is clear that the facts alone surrender little meaning though. You tell the reader in response “you may want the facts, but what you need is story!”

Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Chandler all engineered masterful story sentences. For instance, when describing Tom Buchanan, Fitzgerald writes:

Not even the effeminate swank of his riding clothes could hide the enormous power of that body – he seemed to fill those glistening boots until he strained the top lacing, and you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat (p. 52 in Keys to Great Writing).

Verbs stun the object. They steam through the paragraph. The amputate the gangrenous clunky that overuse of adjectives and adverbs excrete. When fully empowered, verbs shine. Contain within is the beating heart of your transcendental metaphor. Action performed: Verbs! The very shimmer and swiftness of verbs, draw the reader closer to the page. Amazingly, verbs can shine so bright they create  their own spotlight. Drawn in by the dazzle, the reader becomes powerless to the rhythm of your page.

The Active Voice – Emphasis and Energy

The reader struggled through a cold, dry paragraph. The writers’ voice droned on dully. Exhausted, the reader gave up. Fortunately, the reader was compelled by the next text. A bright, warm voice provided energy and enthusiasm to the topic. The reader was hooked! Sentences flowed into paragraphs. The verbs simply leapt off the page. The reader was pleasantly surprised to find the words disappear. The verbs were projecting a clear image. The reader, thought to herself “this topic seemed so boring before. Now it makes sense.” The verbs, delighted, burst out dancing. The writer’s active voice, smiled. Working with the verbs, the Active voice delivered beauty on the page.

The story about is rather silly. I delighted in writing it though. Each verb choice reminded me of verb’s power. Reading is hard enough. You want to enjoy my work. As a writer, I want to choreograph a dance within the topic that is full of energy and enthusiasm. I write for you; and for myself. I choose to write with an active voice.

Using an Active Voice

My SEO tool suggests to use the active voice 90% of the time. This is good advise. Wilbers give great advise though:

Use the active voice to write with emphasis and vigor… That’s good advice as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. More complete advice would be to use the active voice – unless you have a good reason to us the passive voice (p. 50).

I will return to the passive voice shortly. First, I wish to elaborate on the attributes of the active voice. Wilbers cautions against obstacles to vigor. The Active Voice is best served with little to no vigor obstacles. The Active Voice chooses nouns over verbs. Nouns are sticklers. Nouns are factual and see accuracy. Active verbs run. They flourish when the nouns are appropriately curtail. Concluding his exposition on Active Voice, Wilbers writes:

In a word, action is the key. Use actions verbs, mind travel, and the active voice to create movement. Make your sentences tell stories, and don’t let those nominalizations and noun stacks get in the way. Remember: to keep it interesting, keep it moving (p. 64).

Crafting the Passive Voice within the Active Voice

The Passive Voice has been demonized. I have cast it in a long shadow. The Active Voice brims with exciting verbs and it yearns to tell you stories. It is in this way that the Passive Voice gets punished. It needn’t be this way. Just as Jung advised  we confront our shadow, the Passive voice is worth further examination. Again, Wilbers assists. He outlines five occasions when the Passive Voice is in harmony with the active counterpart. These are: 1) To emphasize the receiver of the action; 2) To reduce the emphasis on the performer of the action; 3) To avoid responsibility; 4) to create smooth connections between passages; and 5) to maintain a consistent point of view or sequence of subjects.

Therefore, just as nouns stifle verbs, so too can the Passive voice stifle his active brother. Reality can be cold and bare. Too many nouns spoken with the Passive voice reveal this. When balanced appropriately though, both nouns and the passive voice provide solid foundation for the verb’s flair. Beyond this, Wilbers highlights how

effective the Passive Voice can be:

… another method for moving old information to the left and new information to the right is the passive voice. The problem with using the active voice in the relative clause is that it introduces a second subject before indicating how that subject relates… In contrast, the passive voice moves the modifying word forward so that it is adjacent to, and links with the phase it modifies (p.206).

Final Thoughts on the Active Voice

I write to inform. I write to entertain, to provoke, to illicit your response. However, a primary driving force  for my writing is selfishness. I write to understand. It is easy to think all day and claim to have the answer. I know! I know X and I know Y. Writing on the other hand, invites feedback. Feedback challenges “I know!” This challenge though also creates an understanding. I started this article with the observation that I had, according to the SEO tools, overused the passive  voice. I desired to know – and to understand – the Active Voice. Within me was a desire to communicate my research. Ultimately though, this is about my desire to command the active and passive voice like a puppeteer does his puppets.

Active Voiced Bullshit
To learn to read is to learn the tricks of writing.

The task of writing well is not for the faint of heart. It is true, I didn’t anticipate how much writing I’d have to do. I’m here now though. I thus conclude: I must become a better writer. Overtime and with practice I can learn to more effectively write for the internet. The first step is to gain command over the active voice. I write for you. I write for me. Now I seek to write with greater clarity and more efficiently when I use the active voice unless there is good reason not too.

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Authorship in What is an Author

Authorship is in question

What is an Author
Notes and Quotes Part 01

Authorship and the Author
What is an Author?

Read What is an Author

What is an Author is a text created from a Lecture that Foucault gave in 1969. He repeated a version of this lecture in 1970 in the United States of America. The version of this text is translated into English by Josué V.Harari and has been slightly modified. Importantly, Foucault had multiple texts that held the title “What is.”
This version of notes and quotes is designed to follow “The Death of the Author” by Roland Barthes. Read notes and quotes on The Death of the Author.


Teaser Quote

In a superb move of inside-outside thinking [Foucault] engages in the Shakespeare conspiracy as a moment in the proper name problem. However, rather than ask: Was it Bacon who was the true writer of the sonnets, the tragedies and comedies; he instead asks: “What would it mean if Shakespeare was the author of Bacon’s Oeuvre?”



What is an Author? The person who composes the text of course! Really? Well, the context in which this question is asked is crucial. If a young child was to ask “(mum or dad) what is an author?” that is one thing. It is though, an entirely different situation when one asks this question in response to Barthes’ axiom: The Author is dead so that the reader may live! The situation is suddenly far more complex, and requires a level of intellectual sophisticati

What does this term really mean?

on to recognize it as a question of epistemology. Foucault, is one such autéur, to address the epistemology at play in Barthes axiom.  He demands we return to first principles with his question. In fact, Foucault had a series of “What” questions which remind us how dangerous it is to take nouns, especially proper nouns, for granted; the most important of these being “What is Enlightenment.”


So we have looked at Barthes on the Tangent General website, and sought to derive as much value from this masterwork as possible. Yet it is not without fault.  In fact it emphasizes the reader heavily and doesn’t sufficiently define “What” is the author is. In order to fill this gap, we turn now to a lengthy lecture delivered by Foucault, and with skepticism – rinse and repeat for another edition of notes and quotes.

What Constitutes  An Author?

Foucault beings his lecture by demonstrating that there is a “sociohistoric” context in which the author concept has emerged. He is going to pry open the concepts of authorship throughout this lecture in order to reexamine the precepts from which they have been formed. Thus, he begins with the basic seeming a priori statement of authorship, which is that the author is a unit of measurement when examining a literary field. He writes:

Donald Trump - author of "The Apprentice"
Why is he called “The Donald” and why does that matter?



I shall not offer here a sociohistorical analysis of the authors persona. Certainly, it would be worth examining how the author became individualized in a culture like ours, what status he has been given, at what moment studies of authenticity and attribution began, in what kind of system of valorization the

author was involved, at what point we began to recount the lives of authors rather than of hero, and how this fundamental category of “the-man-and-his-work-criticism” began. For the moment, however, I want to deal solely with the relationship between text and author and with the manner in which the text points to this figure that, at least in appearance, is outside it and antecedes it (p.205).



He Who Speaks vs What has been Said

Foucault is, in this formulation highlighting how unusual the desire is – to know who is speaking, as opposed to concentrating on what is said. Being fully immersed in the cult of the Author which may be more aptly described as the cult of personality. Why for example, is the issue “Who is Donald Trump (or Hilary Clinton for matter)” rather than “What does the POTUS do?” We take for granted its unique place in cultural history. Barthes who wanted to kill off the author, may have been reacting directly to this, so it is in this paradigm that Foucault is examining the significance of Authorship within a discursive culture.

Color Theory (as metaphor for inside-outside thinking)

Foucault is the preeminent progenitor of what I like to call “inside-outside” thinking. One way to easily conceptualize this is to consider what colour the sun is. Here we borrow from Color Theory, color theory exposes that the sun is not yellow (or Gold or White) but yellow (or Gold or White) against blue. That is, the sun cannot be (directly) perceived except through the context of the sky. Similarly, Foucault here is outlining that the author cannot be perceived outside of the act of authorship. Thus we have our first precept to examine: the act of authorship as a body of distinguishable from the act of writing. Now, as soon as we recognize this precept, we immediately uncover the second. If the author is the act of authorship and authorship is distinguishable from the act of writing, then we must isolate and understand what the act of writing is.

Author as the act of Authorship

Foucault offers two themes in the act of writing: 1) writing is a game; and 2) writing is a process to keep death at bay. Foucault explains:

Our culture has metamorphosed this idea of narrative, or writing, as something designed to ward off death. Writing has become linked to sacrifice, even to sacrifice of life: it is now a voluntary effacement that does not need to be represented in books, since it is brought about in the writer’s very existence. The work, which once had the duty of providing immortality, now possesses the right to kill, to be its author’s murderer, as in the case of Flaubert, Proust, and Kafka.

That is not all, however: this relationship between writing and death is also manifested in the effacement of the writing subject’s individual characteristics. Using all the contrivances that he sets up between himself and what he writes, the writing subject cancels out the signs of his particular individuality. As a result, the mark of the writer is reduced to nothing more than the singularity of his absence; he must assume the role of the dead man in the game of writing (pp. 206-07).

Authorship as opposed to Writing

Writing is an act of First Principles. Think about a resume, it is written as opposed to being authored. The implication then follows quite clearly, the act of authoring is a derivative function of the act of writing. In other words, authorship has a very particular set of attributes which form a subset from the act of writing. Set

Set Theory
A set of all subsets, within which the subsets of the subsets also exist. Author emerges from writer.

relationships is a metaphor taken from Set Theory. Nonetheless, set theory is a valuable metaphor as it highlights the distinction of attributes that form authorship which exist (only?) within the set of writing. Here though, it may prove useful to abandon writing and replace it with “acts of self expression”.

Foucault will, later acknowledge that his observation can be scaled up beyond text to include, for instance, image and music as well. Image, Music, Text – a deliberate reference back to Barthes on my part. Foucault  though, wants to delve deeper in to his distinction between writing and authorship. Where are the boundaries of authorship? Foucault argues they are contained in the accepted body of work, the oeuvre.

When is it an act of Authorship and when is it just writing?

Yet, what constitutes the oeuvre is not immediately apparent and Foucault deals with this directly:

Even when an individual has been accepted as an author, we must still ask whether everything that he wrote, said, or left behind is part of his work. The problem is both theoretical and technical. When undertaking the publication of Nietzsche’s works, for example, where should one stop? Surely everything must be published, but what is “everything?” Everything that Nietzsche himself published, certainly. And what about rough drafts of his work? Obviously. The plans for his aphorisms? Yes. The deleted passages and the notes at the bottom of the page? Yes. What if, within a work book filled with aphorisms, one find a reference, the notation of a meeting or an address, or a laundry list: is it a work or not? Why not?

… How can one define a work amid the millions of traces left by someone after his death? A theory of the work does not exist, and the empirical task of those who naively undertake the editing of works often suffer in the absence of such a theory (pp. 207-08).

Again, the metaphor of the author’s death raised by Barthes in 1967, is prominent in this passage. I draw special attention to Foucault’s use of the verb “undertaking” and the cessation of a theory of work once the individual would-be author has died.

Authorship as a unified body of writing?

Penguin books
What are the attributes of “classic” and how are “penguin classics” fulfilling this?

Already Foucault has highlighted the complexities existent at the boundaries  of Authorship and writing. He has also introduced a relationship that can be formulated between empiricism and a theory of work. This then necessitates the question: does the author exist in the absence of an empirical theory of work? The answer is a paradox: yes, we need the author to have an empirical theory of work, but we need the epirical theory of a body of work to produce the author. In this sense Foucault suggests “we try, with great effort, to imagine the general condition of each text, the condition of both the space in which it is dispersed and the time in which it unfolds” (p.208). In other words, a text without a context is an indecipherable piece of writing.

Writing as Religious and Creative

However, there is more to this assertion. Anticipating the author as penal figure, the notion of time unfolding is significant. Why does Madame Bovary shift from an illicit and blasphemous text in the 19th Century to a classic piece of literature in the 21st? Is it because the text can be the author’s killer? Foucault argues that it is because writing contains within itself an inherent transcendental quality. He says:

In current usage, however, the notion of writing seems to transpose the empirical characteristics of the author into a transcendental anonymity. We are content to efface the more visible marks of the author’s [empirical essence] by playing off, one against the other, two ways of characterizing writing, namely the critical and the religious approaches. Giving writing a primal status seems to be a way of re-translating, in transcendental terms, both the

Authorship as religious
The original critique may have been a method to interpret the biblical texts.

theological affirmation of its scared character and the critical affirmation of its creative character. To admit that writing is, because of the very history that made it possible, subject to the test of oblivion and repression, seems to represent in transcendental terms, the religious principle of hidden meanings (which requires interpretation) and the critical principles of implicit significances, silent determinations, and obscured commentaries (which give rise to commentaries).

To imagine writing as absence seems to be a simple repetition, in transcendental terms of both the religious principle of in-alterable and yet never fulfilled tradition, and the aesthetic principle of the work’s survival, its perpetuation beyond the author’s death, and its enigmatic excess in relation to him (p. 208).

Author through Critique

I will now take a lot of the above passage apart. The vector of the transcendental as Foucault has introduced, is a crucial element of the emergence of the figure of the author. Empiricism alone, in one sense, in ill-equipped to fully identify the authorship of a body of work. The theory of work then exists outside of the authorship in and of  itself. Already it is very clear how connected  authorship is to the specter of death. In light of this, Foucault invites into our reading, the theological approach. Religion and death go hand in had culturally speaking. This is an inappropriate time to examine religion’s cultural role beyond understanding death, but have faith that religion also contains the capacity to teach us how to live.

Nonetheless Foucault elucidates here the role religion plays  in determining the meaning of a text. Thus, by extension, its role in developing a theory of work. It crucially seeks to reveal and expose the hidden meaning beneath the surface. So too, Foucault explains does the critic. Religion is exchanged for the implicit, yet the function remains the same. Therefore, the transcendental nature inherent in the text as Foucault reveals, is the need for an interpretation. In other words, the text cannot exist  without it’s commentary.

Critique as Mid Wife

The critique then, the commentary, brings the author to life. Or at the very least, the critique extrudes the authorship beyond the text. So, if Derrida

Post-Structuralist Author
This is not a pipe, it’s a text describing a pipe.

says there is only the text, because language requires language to enunciate itself, then Foucault resist this. He does so by espousing the transcendental nature inherent within. However, Foucault’s move here is greater than reaffirming the importance of structuralism in a post-structuralist world, he is also continuing to highlight how context “creates” text. Put succinctly, the author is formed through the authorship determined in the critique. In other words,: The author’s birth is delivered by the critique.

This is not simple semantics. At play is a situational understanding of how the Truth is perpetuated. Foucault points out a symbiotic relationship between author and

critic. Here foreshadowing how the function of an identified author can stand for much more than a text in itself. Later Foucault will introduce discursivities and elaborate on the transcendental implications. For now though, he continues to work on nailing down the definition of author. If an author is the act of authorship identified through the critic then, Foucault asks, what constitutes the Author’s proper name.

Author as constituted Author’s Proper name

Did Homer really write the Iliad? If not Homer, then who? More significantly, did it matter in the Hellenistic Golden Age? Foucault shifts the interrogation now to the very instance of the Author: their proper name. The Author’s proper name is for Foucault, already problematic. Rather than solve this issue, he  instead seeks to further complicate it. In a superb move of inside-outside thinking he engages in the Shakespeare conspiracy as a moment in the proper name problem. However, rather than ask: was it Bacon who wrote the sonnets, tragedies and comedies; he asks: “What would it mean if Shakespeare was the true author of Bacon’s oeuvre? This exposition of the proper name dialectic is central to the question of what is the Author. Foucault demands that we engage deeply and contemplatively with this issue:

The proper name and the author’s name are situated  between the two poles of description and designation: they must have a certain link with what they name, but one that is neither entirely in the mode of designation nor in that of description; it must be a specific link. However – and it is here that the particular difficulties of the author’s name arise – the links between the proper name and the individual named and between the author’s name and what it names are not isomorphic and do not function in the same way. There are  several differences (pp. 209-10).

Author Function

The Author is, and is not just, a designated proper name. Foucault in making this argument is drawing our attention to the functionality of such a proper name. How does the functional proper name fit with in the paradigm of text in critically produced context? If Shakespeare didn’t actually live in Stafford-upon-Avon, then that has little bearing on Hamlet. However, if Hamlet and the Organon originated from the same pen, the function of the proper name is shattered. Therefore, Foucault asks that we examine in some detail, the “Author Function.”

End of Part 01

If this close reading is set against the  previous reading on Tangent General of Barthes The Death of the Author, then quickly we have moved out of the Post-structural

Roland Barthes Michel Foucault
What is an Author if the Author is Dead?

ist abyss through Foucault. Foucault in the above is searching for Truth in the concept of Authorship. Truth that is transcendental and ineffable, only perceptible  via signification and implication. What has happened rapidly in this discussion of authorship is the functionality of authorship in the context of the author’s death. Foucault rejects pure empiricism in developing such a determination. He strives to retain and maintain the transcendental aspect of the text, which transcends the image of the author. Therefore, in the examination of the precepts which form our concepts, the author is an emergent property. At root of this emergence is the author function.

In Part 02 of a close reading of Foucault’s What is an Author we will examine the Author Function in some detail before moving on to examining the historical moves Foucault identifies from this observation. As foreshadowed above, having an Author means a work can be considered profane or sacred. Further to this, Foucault will demonstrate how authority is a fundamental embedded attribute of authorship. This will open up the specter of discourse and eventually discursive narratives which sit ephemerally above the author in and of themselves. Freud birthed the Freudians and Marx did the Marxists. So click back soon for the further unfoldment of these arguments in part 02.

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