While recently unpacking boxes from our move to Wellington, I discovered an old file containing editorials that I wrote as a teenager for my hometown newspaper in Wooster, Ohio.
The editorials are a snapshot into my teenage mind. They covered topics such as bullying at school, preparing for university, and parental rules. The editorials have the earnest tone of a young person who was just discovering her world. For example, one article discussed my thoughts after first learning about the social and political movements of the late 1960s:
‘The literature that was read by me recently about the late 1960s has been flooded with nostalgia. This magical summer occurred even before my birth, but somehow, its spirit was felt by me. The spirit to revolt, to stand proud for ideals is appealing to me. That was the summer of 1969.’
The editorials convey my passion for learning, but their overuse of passive voice (in bold) makes me cringe today. As a young writer I didn’t understand that it was not the amount of words that creates effective writing; rather, the most powerful prose is often clear and concise.
‘Voice’ refers to the relationship between subject and verb. If the subject performs the action of the verb, the verb is active. If the subject receives the action of the verb, the verb is passive. A verb that isn’t passive or active is a linking verb that is a form of the verb ‘to be’ (for example, ‘He is going.’). Compare these sentences:
Michelle opens the book.
The book was opened by Michelle.
The first sentence uses active voice to express Michelle’s action. The second sentence’s passive voice clutters the sentence with an unnecessary helping ‘be’ verb. The passive voice makes the sentence sound past tense even though it isn’t.
Passive voice can obscure who or what did the action. For example, the first sentence demonstrates that Michelle is doing the action. Passive voice emphasises to whom the action was done. Consequently, passive voice saps the power from verbs and makes sentences sound stilted and awkward.
My teachers pushed me for years to trim passive voice from my writing. I did not conquer this habit until I worked as a newspaper reporter. Writing short articles forced me to be concise.
Passive voice can be skillfully used when you want to emphasise the receiver of the action. For example, compare ‘Moonlight flooded the landscape’ with ‘The landscape was flooded by moonlight.’ The best writers make strategic choices between active and passive voice depending on the effect they want to have on the reader.
Improving your writing’s clarity and conciseness takes work, but wordiness weakens your writing’s power. Write short sentences. Write the way you speak. Never use passive voice if you can effectively use the active.