Get a Move On! Use the Active Voice!
April 16, 2018
Late last summer, I tore the meniscus in my left knee.
For the non-medical types out there, the meniscus is a piece of cartilage that cushions and stabilizes the joint and protects the bones from wear and tear.
If I were a sedentary 80-year-old, I might just have to accept a meniscal tear as one of those inevitable things that comes with the passage of time.
But I’m a 50 (ish) life-long runner, and the part of the meniscus that was torn was also “flipped” (the actual medical term according to my MRI). That meant chronic pain, restricted movement, and…not running. Ouch. That hurt the most. In April, I had run the Boston Marathon. By September, I was a couch potato.
Now, I know some of you are thinking that the couch is, hands down, a more enticing place to be than out on the Boston Marathon course, but as any runner – or regular mover of any sort – will tell you, not being able to do your favourite activity is actually pretty terrible.
For me, running satisfies at least three basic needs. On the physical level, I love the feeling of building strength and stamina. Mentally, it gives me confidence and clears my head for calm thinking. And on the social front, it offers up a fun, supportive community of like-minded individuals.
Take all that away, and I am, frankly, lost. I have no energy. I have no focus. And I have a lot of unanswered questions – chief among them: Will I ever run again? (Yes, apparently, now that I’ve had arthroscopic surgery.)
What does this have to do with writing, you ask?
Well…what happens to me when I’m not running is exactly the same thing that happens to your writing when you use the passive voice. It has no energy. It has no focus. And it leaves unanswered questions.
As Josh Bernoff explains in Writing Without Bullshit: “In a passive voice sentence, the subject of the sentence is not the actor performing the action. The sentence starts instead with the noun that the action is done to.”
Take this simple example: “The coffee pot is to be cleaned each night and garbage placed in the appropriate bins.”
When we start the sentence with the noun – the coffee pot – we don’t know who is supposed to be doing these tasks. Perhaps it is the Dishes and Garbage Fairy? I hate to break it to you, but, like the Great Oz, she doesn’t exist and won’t be coming to your office anytime soon. Better to make a real person responsible.
Rewriting as “Employees must clean the coffee pot each night and place garbage in the appropriate bins” makes the sentence a bit shorter (almost always a good thing). It also gives the sentence some energy. Most importantly, it makes it clearer. Now we know who to blame when we discover dirty dishes and smelly garbage.
In professional writing, examples of passive voice are all too common: “investigations were conducted,” “recommendations were made,”, “reports were submitted,” “feasibility studies were initiated,” “the policy is designed to,” “achievements are celebrated.” And of course, we’ve all seen this big corporate responsibility-ducker: “mistakes were made.”
All this is not to say that you should never, ever use the passive voice. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, even preferable, but those instances are rare.
In his excellent book, Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters, Sir Harold Evans says: “Vigorous, clear and concise writing demands sentences with muscle, strong active verbs cast in the active voice.”
If you do just one thing to improve your writing, promise me you’ll get up off the couch and put some muscle into your sentences.