Skills for journalists in print and digital media

Coaching the active voice

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Question: How do I get one of my writers to use the active voice?

First, know that “voice” is really the absence of all affectation, conscious “style” or tricks. Voice is not ornamentation or trying to sound official or expert. In news writing, that is often expressed in “journalese,” a convoluted parallel prose style based on bureaucratic-speak and passive voice.

At it’s most basic, the active voice means the SUBJECT of the sentence does something to the OBJECT, and that expression of doing is the VERB. The passive voice, in sentence construction, is where the OBJECT is having something done to it by the SUBJECT, with the VERB transformed in many cases. Active voice usually involves fewer words, another benefit.

Bob threw the ball to Sue. (Active)
Sue had the ball thrown to her by Bob. (Passive)

So working with a writer to use the active voice means training them to see what is happening in a sentence, to understand who / what is doing what to who / what, to see how energy is transferred from one thing to another. And then to express that directly — actively.

Budget reductions were voted on by the school board. (Passive)
The school board voted on budget reductions. (Active)

Drivers face stiff penalties for broken headlights under a new state
law. (Passive)
A new state law imposes stiff penalties on drivers with broken
headlights. (Active)

People naturally speak in the active voice as they tell stories. People tend to comprehend and retain information better when expressed in the active voice.

The passive voice can also be a function of overly long compound sentences. So another tactic in working with a writer toward a more active voice is to impose a 20-word or so limit on sentence length. This forces or encourages a writer to keep one idea per sentence clearly in focus. This makes it easier to see the “active” exchange of action or energy in a sentence.

Seniors were angry that the local utility’s new tax would add more than 15% to their monthly electric bills, and vowed to have the board removed from office by taking their grievances to court. (Passive)

The local utility’s new tax adds 15% to monthly electric bills. The added cost angered seniors. They plan to take their grievances to court to have the utility board removed. (Active)

Coaching a writer to consistently revise for specific issues (e.g. sentence length; active versus passive voice), is more than fixing a single story; it shows them how to transform their writing. The key is revision, not first drafts.

Show writers some of their chronic bad habits, a list of 3-5 things. Ask that they set aside the time to revise a first draft on these specific issues. When you copy edit their work, the list then gives you and the writer a clear metric for success. This also enables the editor to highlight chronic writing the issues story to story, and not treat edit as an isolated incident. Gradually, raise the bar, add new things to the list. Over time an editor can help a writer become a better self-editor and gain more control over their material.

There are a number of good books on writing that cover active voice and other basic issues that can provide fodder for a solid revision / self-editing list. Among them:

The Magic and Craft of Media Writing, Carl Sessions Stepp

A Writer’s Coach, Jack Hart

On Writing Well, William Zinsser

I always recommend writers and editors read George Orwell’s immortal essay on writing, “Politics and the English Language,” for specifics and inspiration.

Amid many great passages in that essay, Orwell’s list of rules for clear writing:

– Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
– Never use a long word where a short one will do.
– If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
– Never use the passive where you can use the active.
– Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
– Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.


Written by mroberts8

05/15/2011 at 12:02 am

Posted in Q&A, Writing

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