I Choose the Active Voice (Or Avoiding Passive Prose)
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.
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.
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 tangenetgeneral.com 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 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
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.
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.