For many writers, feedback that your copy is "too passive" can be frustrating. The passive voice is, after all, grammatically correct. But there's a reason that public relations and communications professionals write in an active voice rather than a passive voice.
The passive voice tends to be wordier, muddier, and more watered down. Press releases and journalistic writing tend to be crisp, clear, and direct.
There’s a subtle nuance between active and passive voice writing. It can slip by barely noticed, but once you learn and master the difference, you'll see how you can improve your PR and marketing communications by writing in the active voice.
To understand passive voice and active voice, let's take a thorough look at each.
What is Active Voice in Writing?
The message in active voice is direct; there is no question about who the subject is or what they are doing.
The active voice follows a subject-verb-object construction. In these examples, the subject is in bold and the verb is in italics:
- The company hired a new executive.
- Hurricane Rita caused 120 deaths in four states in 2005.
- Rover loves his dog food.
- Netflix raises subscription prices ... again.
What is Passive Voice Compared to Active Voice?
A passive sentence buries the lead, so to speak. The object of the sentence (the recipient of the action) begins the sentence, followed by the verb, typically written in one of these formats "is [verb] ... by" or "was [verb] ... by" as in the examples below:
- Jane Doe was named CEO by ABC Company.
- Homes in four states were damaged in the wake of Hurricane Rita.
- That dog food is loved by Rover.
- Subscription fees were raised by Netflix ... again.
Which is Preferred: Active or Passive Voice?
Let’s see what the experts say:
“Passive voice sentences conceal who is acting and creates uneasiness… if you are insecure about what you’re saying, you hide it behind passive wording. Figure out who the actor in the sentence is and make it the subject.” -Josh Bernoff, 10 top writing tips and psychology behind them
“Active voice in content is more engaging for readers… Using active voice helps with readability and user experience.” -Christy Walters, The Importance of Active Voice in Content
“Using active voice…makes your meaning clear for readers, and keeps the sentences from becoming too complicated or wordy.” -Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab), Active Versus Passive Voice
“Active verbs move action and reveal actors. Passive verbs emphasize the receiver, the victim.” -Vicki Krueger, How to power your writing with active and passive verbs
In journalism, an active voice is generally preferred over a passive one. The active voice writing style is more direct, concise, and engaging, which is aligned with the goals of journalistic writing – to convey information in a clear and straightforward manner. When writing a press release, your goal is to share your news in a quick, easy-to-understand manner so reporters can easily scan your news and quickly decide to cover your story.
When Should the Passive Voice be Used?
In academic, scientific, and literary writing
Academic and scientific writers often use the passive voice to neutralize their messages. Essayists, poets, and literary writers also use the passive voice to make certain points, to build suspense, and to develop the point of view of their narrators.
To emphasize the object
While journalistic writing favors the active voice, there are some instances when the passive voice is preferred, especially with certain types of headlines. Generally speaking, when the object is more important or newsworthy than the subject, then the passive voice is preferred.
To de-emphasize an unknown subject
If the subject is unknown, or if readers don’t need to know who is responsible for the action, the passive voice is preferred.
When writing press releases, we suggest using the active voice whenever possible. You have only a few seconds to catch journalists' and readers' attention; an active voice helps enhance the clarity and immediacy of your news.
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