“Reduced to its essence, a good English sentence is a statement that an agent (the subject of the sentence) performed an action (the verb) upon something (the object).” — John Ciardi, American poet and writing teacher
“Those of us lucky enough to write in English have no excuse for using anything less than the strongest verbs.”– Jack Hart, “A Writer’s Coach.”
We can’t improve on Ciardi and Hart. But we join them on their call for more sentences that derive their power from a construction of subject, strong active verb and object. You diminish the power of your sentences when you construct them in the passive voice. The reader senses little urgency and abandons your story. The passive voice also encourages the use of unneeded words and forms of the weak verb “to be” — is, are, was, were.
What do we mean by the passive voice? Jack Hart gives this simple example: PASSIVE: The ball was clobbered by the cleanup batter vs. ACTIVE: The cleanup batter clobbered the ball. What usually happens, Hart says, is that the writer takes the original object of the verb and twists it into the subject of the sentence. It’s important to find the passive voice in your writing and ask whether the active voice would work better. Check, too, how often you use a form of the verb “to be” and see if you can rewrite to use an active verb.
The active voice encourages you to find the strongest possible verbs, too. While the use of gerunds and participles (creating nouns and adjectives by adding -ing to verbs) sometimes adds vitality to your writing, their overuse often suffocates strong verbs yearning to be free. (In other words, strong verbs yearn to be free). Here’s an example from a recent edit:
ORIGINAL: That technology was on full display, with the giant screen showing the tug-of-war, broadcasts blaring in two languages, chefs in both cities trying out recipes.
BETTER: The technology was on full display as the giant screen showed the tug of war, broadcasts blared in two languages and chefs in both cities tried out recipes.
OR The technology was on full display: The giant screen showed the tug of war, broadcasts blared in two languages and chefs in both cities tried out recipes.
Here are two more simple examples of how a switch to the active voice can move your sentence faster, eliminate unneeded words and convey action:
ORIGINAL: It was not until around 2005 that the situation improved.
BETTER: The situation improved in 2005.
ORIGINAL: However, his 8 years as mayor has also given Mike Bloomberg ample opportunity to offend various groups of voters in one way or another.
BETTER: Bloomberg’s eight years as mayor gave him ample opportunity to offend voters in one way or another.
So get active and make yourself a better writer.
P.S. Craft professor Dave Lewis provided a wonderful example of the active/passive issue — Which would you prefer hearing from your significant other? I love you or You are loved. Case closed.