How to use active language to engage your audience

Winston ChurchillWriting in the active voice is one of the first rules of journalism, alongside investing in a good Dictaphone and getting your facts straight. Yet many writers slip into passive writing without thinking. A good editor will weed out passive sentences, favouring brevity and clarity over long, weighty sentences that muddy the point and lack emotional impact. But it makes their job a hundred times easier if their writers know how to distinguish between the active and passive voice – and when it is appropriate to use them.

Why use active language?

Active writing gets to the point quickly and directly, meaning that your audience is engaged from start to finish. It is an economic and vigorous form of writing that goes hand-in-hand with tight word counts and the necessity to write clearly and without ambiguity.

What is meant by ‘the active voice’?

It’s all a matter of grammar and sentence structure. In an active sentence, a subject ‘acts’ on an object via a transitive verb.

For example:

Big Brother [subject] is watching [transitive verb] you [object].

In a passive sentence, the object of the action is placed before the subject, so that it is now the subject of the sentence that is being acted upon.

For example:

You are being watched by Big Brother.

What is wrong with using the passive voice?

It isn’t the most immediate way of communicating an action and can be quite vague. If Ronald Reagan’s passive admission to the 1986 Iran-Contra scandal (“Mistakes were made”) had converted to the active voice (“I made a mistake”), the implications would have been quite different!

The passive voice also tends to lengthen sentences. Active writing is therefore favoured by news journalists, advertising copywriters, political speechwriters, songwriters, and in fact, anyone seeking to reach their audience quickly and directly. Think of Winston Churchill’s famous speech (“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets…”) and imagine it being rewritten in the passive voice. “Fighting will take place on the beaches, fighting will take place on the landing grounds” etc. Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it?

When is the passive voice useful?

Fiction writers will often purposefully use the passive voice to draw attention away from the subject of the sentence. Too much of anything becomes boring and this is true of the active voice too. Writers can therefore harness the persuasive powers of the active voice when it is necessary to state something plainly, slipping into the passive voice to communicate through nuance and suggestion.

For example, starting a piece with ‘It was decided by the state that the man would be banished’ is a much more compelling – albeit passive – opening line than ‘The state decided to banish the man’. By placing the emphasis of the sentence on the object (i.e. the man) rather than on the subject (i.e. the state), the reader’s sympathies settle on the man, giving leeway for further character development.


Alexandra SzydlowskaAlexandra Szydlowska is a freelance writer and journalist, currently based in London. She is keen on roaming the world while writing about travel, culture, food and women’s issues. She sometimes struggles to stay chained to her desk.