Home > Articles

This chapter is from the book

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 are 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, you will 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 will make 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.

Mackie Morris.

Previously Morris 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 will make 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 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, because 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 will eliminate 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 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.

InformIT Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from InformIT and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites, develop new products and services, conduct educational research and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@informit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by InformIT. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.informit.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020