Passive voice – squash it

Shifting from passive to active voice improves clarity and shortens your sentences.  Your impact/word rate climbs dramatically – a critical skill in tight newsholes and when writing for short attention spans.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Identify who or what is doing something.
  2. Make that noun the subject of your sentence.
  3. Next find a powerful verb to enable that subject to do that action.

Example: Bill received a bullet shot from the gun that Ellen fired.

Who is acting? Ellen.  (We’ll make her the subject of the sentence.)

What is she doing? Firing a gun. (Let’s look for strong verbs that enable her to do so)

First try:  Ellen fired a gun at Bill.

But: There is an open question here. Did she hit him? Is there a better verb that carries greater meaning?

Yes: Ellen shot Bill. 

Shot not only has a more precise meaning, it cuts our word count even more. We’re getting more meaning per word.

Original word count:  11

Final word count: 3

Clarity bonus: Writing Bill received a bullet shot from the gun that Ellen firedcould mean that Ellen shot a bullet into a wall, dug it out and gave it to Bill. The three-word rewrite makes clear her malevolent intent.

Rewrite these sentences from passive to active voice while omitting needless words:

The volleyball team was congratulated by Tom Izzo.

Bicycles are the mode of transportation for millions of Chinese.

It is a common occurrence to see two or three people on one bike.

It is being irresponsible when people run with scissors.

Tears poured from his eyes and ran down his cheeks.

Interviewing with active voice in mind

In journalism, passive construction is not just about the writing. It is often used by sources to deflect blame.

Mayor at press conference: “Mistakes were made.”

Bad journalist’s story:  The mayor said that mistakes were made.

Good journalist’s response: “Hey mayor, can you recast your sentence in active voice?” Or, more likely, “Hey mayor, who made the mistakes?”

Mayor’s reply: “I screwed up.”

Headline in good journalist’s newspaper:  Mayor: I screwed up

Passive writing leads to questions.  Active writing answers them.

Rewrite these sentences (You can invent actors) so that they answer the questions they now prompt:

1. The grade received by Susan Jones was low because the bibliography was left out of her research paper. (Who gave the low grade? Who left out the bibliography?)

2. It is claimed that more poor research papers are caused by inattention to detail rather than by faulty documentation. (Who makes this claim? Who is inattentive to detail?)

 

Poor reporters may resort to passive construction to sneak unattributed information into a story.

Example: It’s a known fact that professors are ill prepared for class.

Reasonable question: Who is acting? Who knows this fact?

Rewrite in active voice: Many students know that professors are ill prepared for class.

Note: The sentence has shifted from passive to active. But is it accurate? You couldn’t write this sentence without interviewing many students.

What the journalist likely meant: I know many professors are ill-prepared for class.

But: Unless it’s a first person piece or an eyewitness description, journalists stay out of their own stories.

 

Another example: Many believe that the mayor is corrupt.

Reasonable question: Many what? Dogs? Martians? The mayor’s political foes?

Most likely: The writer believes this.

 

Always favor short active verbs over wimpy verb phrases.

“Izzo put the emphasis on rebounding” is wimpy. Izzo emphasized rebounding” is strong.

Other wimpy verb phrases:

Make a comparison of

Give permission to

Be knowledgeable about

David Poulson, associate director, Knight Center for Environmental Journalism–