I’m sure you’ve heard the terms “active” and “passive” voice, right? Even if the last time you heard it was in your freshman year of high school. Professors, literary critics, and editors harp on the use of active over passive voice. Why? Because passive voice kills the energy of a sentence. The sentence is dead. Readers find it difficult to engage with texts written in passive voice. Don’t get me wrong. Passive voice is not grammatically incorrect and sometimes has a place. And even the best writers fall into the passive trap occasionally. But active voice is a much more powerful writing tool. Overuse of passive voice can be the death knell of your writing, of your voice.
Passive voice means the subject of the sentence is being acted upon by the verb instead of the subject being the doer in active voice, as below:
The banner was strung high.
See how the sentence falls flat? dead? There is no doer! It’s passive.
As I instructed students back in my teaching days, an edit for a more powerful, active voice requires rewriting the sentence and maybe changing the subject (as in the above passive example). Today, though, I have a new passive-versus-active test for you—an undead test, shall we say. A zombie test!
To test for passive or active voice, Dr. Rebecca Johnson, VP of Academic Affairs at Marine Corps University, suggests adding the words “by zombies” immediately after the verb of the sentence. If the sentence makes sense after adding the phrase, it is passive. And dead.
Let’s put the above sentence to our zombie test.
The banner was strung by zombies high.
Makes sense, right? Passive! In this case, the sentence requires a new subject to convert it to active voice:
Students strung the banner high.
Note: If you add “by zombies” after the verb “strung” to this sentence, it no longer makes sense. It is active voice.
Let’s try another sentence.
The walls were covered with posters and pictures of graduates.
Now, apply the zombie test:
The walls were covered by zombies with posters and pictures of graduates.
Posters and pictures of graduates covered the walls.
This change creates a much more powerful, concise—and engaging—sentence. Notice, too, by using active voice, sentences are shorter, less wordy.
Again, passive voice is not grammatically incorrect, but if you want to keep your writing alive and engaging, I suggest you use the active voice in at least 80 percent of any writing you do.
Don’t let the undead take your voice!