Updated: Apr 16
By Erin Lebacqz
We had a great discussion about active and passive voice in one of my classes this week. The writers in class worked in the public sector and were gearing up to revise their existing policies and procedures - including by modernizing our language and making everything easier to read.
How can we modernize our language and make it more digestible to our readers?
We know we need to be clear and concise, and to avoid language that might alienate or exclude any of our readers. But what about the "voicing" in our sentences?
Turns out science can prove it's easier to read active voice than passive voice. It seems our brains get a little mixed up when reading passive sentences, which means this kind of reading takes us longer.
This means it's almost always best to use active voice. I'd say, default to using active voice about 90% of the time. Your readers will thank you!
Studies prove it's easier to read active voice than passive voice.
For all the bad news we hear about passive voice, and all the red pens that have crossed out passive passages in our school-based writing, however, passive voice does serve a function. This means we should intentionally use active or passive voice, depending on the situation.
Here's an example from my students' discussion about writing policies and procedures.
Notice the different emphasis in these two approaches to the same problem:
Sentence A: The doors are locked at 7pm by Security. (passive)
Sentence B: Security locks the doors at 7pm. (active)
Sentence C: The doors lock at 7pm. (active)
The difference here is the focus. With Sentence A, we put our focus on the doors; with Sentence B, we focus on the "doer" - in this case, Security. So which is "right"? You guessed it: depends on the situation!
We can make these choices based on our readers, by thinking about what matters most to them. Do they just want to know whether they can get in the door at 6:45? Go with Sentence A. Or, is this a procedure, and we need to focus on who's doing what? Go with Sentence B, as it brings the focus back to "who" is doing the action.
Once again, then, we find the answers to our writing choices lie in our intention. What are we trying to do? For whom? What do they need and care about? By choosing to use active or passive voice in the right situations, we can better give our readers what they need each time.