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Writing in the Active Voice

It's a rare classroom experience that can cause a tidal change. One of those for me was a seminar with Mackie Morris (see the upcoming section). Morris makes his message clear: "Write in the active voice." For example, instead of writing

A bill was passed by the Senate.

write this instead:

The Senate passed a bill.

Put the receiver of the verb's action after the verb. Instead of the passively voiced "John Doe was arrested by police" (Doe is the receiver of the action and is ahead of the verb), change that to "Police arrested John Doe."

Morris emphasizes that passive voice deadens, complicates, and lengthens writing. It's not ungrammatical, but it's more suitable for print than television copy. You use passive voice sparingly in everyday conversation, and you should use it sparingly in video productions. You're asking people to listen to your words, not read them. Make it easy. Make it active.

It takes some effort to make the shift from passive voice to active. Simply recognizing passive voice takes extra attentiveness. The biggest giveaway is some form of the to be verb in a verb phrase. The following sentences are all in the passive voice:

The students were praised by the teacher.

The unruly customer was told to leave by the maitre d'.

The forest was destroyed by fire.

Make them active by moving the receiver of the action to after the verb:

The teacher praised the students.

The maitre d' told the unruly customer to leave.

Fire destroyed the forest.

That one fundamental technique makes your sentences simpler and shorter.

Morris calls it straight-line meaning. The listener understands the copy better because it flows in a straight line. You know that when you read a newspaper you frequently go back and reread some sentences because something didn't add up. Video viewers don't have that luxury.

Besides simply switching the sentence around (relocating the actor, as Morris puts it), you can fix passive sentences in three other ways:

  • Identify the missing actor and insert it into the sentence. Change "The airplane was landed during the storm" to "A passenger landed the airplane during the storm."

  • Change the verb. Instead of writing "The bell was sounded at noon" write "The bell rang at noon." (Or tolled, pealed, chimed—using active voice fosters the use of more descriptive words.)

  • Drop the to be verb. Change "The spotlight was focused on downtown" to "The spotlight focused on downtown."

Not all to be verb phrases are passive. "The man was driving south" contains a verb phrase and a to be helper. But the man was performing the action, not receiving it. Therefore, the sentence is active. A sentence is passive only if the receiver of the verb's action precedes the verb.

Writing in the active voice forces you to get out of your writing rut. Instead of saying the same old things in the same old to be passive way, select new active verbs and constructions. You'll write more conversationally and with a fresher and more interesting style.

That's not to say that you'll write exclusively in the active voice. You should write, "He was born in 1984," or "She was injured in the accident" because that's what people say.

Focusing on active voice makes your copy more interesting and easier to understand.

Mackie Morris' Writing Tips

Few if any media consultants match Mackie Morris' 25-year record as a journalism and communications seminar leader, teacher, coach, and practitioner. Founder and president of Mackie Morris Communications, he works with a wide range of corporate and public service clients to enhance their communication skills.

Morris previously served as chairman of the Broadcast News Department at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He later worked as a vice president and lead consultant for Frank N. Magid Associates, a major media consulting firm, where he implemented a series of instructional workshops for broadcast professionals. It was at one of those seminars that I became a devotee of Morris's "active voice." Morris continues to be one of the most sought-after broadcast writing seminarians ever.

The Good Writer's Dazzlin' Dozen

At his seminars, Morris relentlessly hammers home his active voice message. But peppered throughout his presentation he interjects other useful writing tips. He calls them "The Good Writer's Dazzlin' Dozen":

  • Write factually and accurately. The best technique and the finest form mean nothing if your copy's wrong.

  • Write in the active voice. This technique makes your copy tighter, complete, easier to listen to, and more interesting. Do whatever you must to avoid the passive voice.

  • Write in the present or present perfect tenses. They make your copy more immediate, and immediacy is more interesting. Avoid the word today. If you use past tense, make sure that you give a time reference to avoid confusion.

  • Keep your writing simple. Choose positive forms over negative forms. Write one thought to a sentence. Don't search for synonyms; repetition is not a sin. Don't search for complicated, intellectual language. Give the audience the best possible chance to understand the story.

  • Be complete and clear. In your quest for brevity and conciseness, don't omit necessary information.

  • Be creative. Stick to the rules, but develop your own style. Try to say the same old thing in a different, new way. Make use of writing devices that make copy easier to listen to and more interesting, such as using the "rule of threes" (that is, grouping items by threes, such as red, white, and blue; left, right, and center; over, under, and through). Saying things in groups of three always sounds better. Pausing before saying the third item is even more effective.

  • Write to be heard. Maintain a sense of rhythm in your writing. All life has rhythm, and rhythmic writing is easier to hear. Avoid potentially confusing homonyms. Always, always test your copy by reading it aloud.

  • Avoid interruptives. Don't force the listener to make difficult mental connections. Put modifiers next to what they modify. Don't split verb phrases (split infinitives).

    Incorrect: Will eventually decide.

    Correct: Eventually will decide.

    Incorrect: Doctors only gave him six months to live.

  • Correct: Doctors gave him only six months to live.

  • Avoid commas. A comma demands a hitch in reading and the resulting jerkiness frustrates the listener. Avoiding commas also eliminates subordinate clauses. Such clauses kill the impact of copy, especially if they come at the top of a story or sentence.

  • Avoid numbers. The listener has trouble remembering them.

  • Avoid pronouns. If you must use a pronoun, make sure that the pronoun agrees with its antecedent and appears close to the antecedent. For example, "John Doe hit Bob Smith on the head and paramedics took him to the hospital." In this case, instead of him use Smith.

  • Write to the pictures but not too closely to the pictures. Remember that more specific video requires more general writing, and vice versa. Utilize the touch-and-go method, wherein you write directly to the video at the beginning of a sequence, and then allow the writing to become more general with background information and other facts as the video continues.

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