On the internet, content is king. But is your content clear and easy to read? Digital marketing and social content writing don't just focus on information, but style. Writing in active voice elevates the online user experience so you gain more traffic and your content earns a reputation for reliability.
So, what is an active voice in writing? We’ve got a healthy list of writing tips and examples to help you get started.
What Is an Active Voice?
Active voice is when the subject of a sentence acts on the object. In order to identify the object, review the action verbs in the statement. Ask whether the subject of the sentence is performing the action. If is, the sentence is likely in active voice.
Here’s an example of active vs passive voice:
Active: The cat ate the food.
Passive: The food was eaten by the cat.
In the active sentence, the subject is “the cat,” and it is also the cat who performs the action of eating. The object of the action is “the food.”
In the passive sentence, the action is still eating. But what's been eaten is no longer the object of the sentence, but the subject. The action is not performed on the object but rather on the subject.
Active vs Passive Voice Explained
Writing in active voice sends the same message as passive voice, but passive sentences are indirect. They tend to use more words and can cause confusion.
Active Voice Sentence Structure
A quick overview of sentence structure can answer the questions, “What is passive voice?” and “What is active voice?”
Active voice sentence structure: Subject + verb + object
In the active voice sentence, “The dog chased the squirrel,” the breakdown is:
- Subject: the dog
- Verb: chased
- Object: the squirrel
Passive voice sentence structure: Object + verb + subject
In the passive voice sentence, “The squirrel was chased by the dog,” the breakdown is:
- Object: the squirrel
- Verb: was chased by
- Subject: the dog
Verb tense can also give you an idea of whether a sentence is active or passive. Passive verbs often need extra words to convey meaning, such as “was chased by” while active verbs are simpler: “chased.”
Examples of Active Voice
In order for the differences to become intuitive, it can help to look at examples of active voice and passive voice.
Active voice: The marketing strategy bothered Sarah, who wanted to focus on a different demographic.
Passive voice: Sarah was bothered by the marketing strategy, as she wanted to focus on a different demographic.
Active voice: The kindergartener’s teachers and parents praised her kindness to her classmates.
Passive voice: The kindergartener’s kindness to her classmates was praised by her teachers and parents.
Active voice: The injury victim sued the negligent driver.
Passive voice: The negligent driver was sued by the injury victim.
Active voice: Jag watched the parade with interest as it went past his home.
Passive voice: The parade was watched with interest by Jag as it went past his home.
Active voice: The doctor refilled Anika’s prescription over the phone.
Passive voice: Anika’s prescription was refilled over the phone by the doctor.
The Role of Using an Active Voice in Content Creation
Online content should offer clarity and directness to readers. Active voice sentences have a simpler grammatical construction and are therefore easier to read quickly.
It’s no secret that reading online content requires people to skim. That’s a side effect of the sheer volume of information on the internet. People don’t have time to read every word and move quickly through website text in order to get the gist.
There are some exceptions: If you work in a technical field or source academic writing, you might produce documents that frequently use the passive voice. Scientific writing also regularly uses passive voice sentences.
Sometimes sentences cannot avoid passive constructions, and forcing an active voice can make a phrase confusing or cumbersome. You can also use a passive construction to emphasize the object of a sentence or place the subject at the end to make it stick in the minds of readers.
As a general practice for online content, writing in active voice is where it’s at. It improves readability, which has a direct impact on search engine optimization (SEO). Readability offers a better user experience, which increases the time a visitor spends on a page. It also increases the likelihood of external links to your website.
Not to mention that writing in active voice makes your message stand out: “An active voice sentence improves your online content” is easier to understand than “Your online content is improved by using an active voice sentence.”
8 Tips for Writing in Active Voice
It might be some time since you’ve attended a high school English class, so the nitty-gritty of how to write in active voice might not be front of mind. Fortunately, there’s no need for an English teacher, just a few basic tips on how to change passive voice to active voice.
Identify the Action and Subject
The action is what is happening in the sentence. In the statement, “Jackie watched the swim meet,” the action is “watched.” That’s pretty easy to identify — to find the action, all you have to do is look for the verb. By grammatical definition, the action is contained in the verb.
What is perhaps more confusing is distinguishing the subject from the object. There are two nouns in this sentence: Jackie (a person) and the swim meet. So, which is the subject and which is the object? The subject is the noun that performs the action. The action “watched” is done by Jackie, so Jackie is the subject.
One trick to identify an object is to experiment with leaving it out of the sentence. If you can remove a noun and it’s still a full sentence, it’s likely the object. If you can’t remove the noun and still have a full sentence, the noun is likely the subject.
Let’s test it now: “watched the swim meet,” is not a full sentence. But “Jackie watched” is technically a full sentence, although it’s a short one.
Use Verbs that Convey the Action
Passive verb construction makes the action indirect. The meaning is still the same, but the verb tends to convey a state of being instead of an action.
“The swim meet was being watched by Jackie” means the same as “Jacked watched the swim meet,” but the indirect version of the sentence emphasizes that the state of the swim meet “was being watched” instead of the action of Jackie.
If you come across a sentence that invokes an objective feeling of observation instead of being immersed in action, you probably have a passive construction. Focus on conveying movement or making the focus of the sentence do something.
Anyone who might ask, “What is an active voice?” can get clarification by asking whether the main point of the action is doing or being. That doesn’t mean every sentence has to include physical movement, just that you can easily put yourself in the shoes of the subject.
If you imagine yourself as Kevin in the sentence, “Kevin thought of Lenora,” you can clearly adopt Kevin’s perspective. However, in the sentence, “Lenora was thought of by Kevin,” it’s harder to immediately adopt Kevin’s perspective because the phrase focuses on Lenora, the object.
Keep Sentences Concise
One of the primary benefits of active voice for content writing is its precision. It takes fewer words to say the same thing. If you want to change from passive to active voice, have a look at your word count. If an entire verb phrase is more than two words, it’s likely you are using passive voice.
That’s because passive voice often means using the past participle verb. That’s when you use the past tense form of the verb but add on additional words such as “is” and “by” to make it present tense.
Active: Shelby helps Connor.
Passive: Connor is helped by Shelby.
However, wordiness is not confined to passive voice. Sometimes you can take already active sentences and make them even more concise by rephrasing the verb. Here are two versions of a phrase from a preceding paragraph:
“It’s likely you are using passive voice.”
“It’s likely you are writing in passive voice.”
Both of these are active voice sentences. They also are in present tense. But the first phrase is just a touch more concise than the second, just because “using” is one fewer word than “writing in.”
Focus on the Main Action
The above active voice examples are simple sentences, but if you want to write a good article, you'll need to use phrases that are more complicated. Typically there are several nouns and more than one verb.
To turn your passive sentences into active ones, focus on the main action. Often a verb is actually part of a long object phrase. Take for example this sentence: “Jacked watched her sister compete in the swim meet.”
It’s tempting to isolate “compete” as the main action here. After all, what does this scene look like? But we know the focus of the phrase is not on the sister competing, but on Jackie watching. She is the subject, so she is performing the main action.
Her sister is the object, but more precisely, “her sister compete in the swim meet.” Ask yourself, “Who or what is Jackie watching?” The answer is her sister competing in the swim meet. So the entire phrase is the object.
To test whether it’s accurate to put Jackie front and center and identify her as the subject, let’s try to make this active sentence passive. Ask what phrase would go at the beginning of the sentence and what verb would change to convey exactly the same meaning.
“Jackie’s sister was watched by Jackie as she competed in the swim meet.”
The main action here definitely appears to be “watched.”
Avoid Overusing the Verb "To Be"
Have a look at your writing. Do you often use the “to be” verb and its forms on a regular basis? This might be a sign of overuse of passive voice. “To be” can be a helper verb that makes a passive voice grammatically accurate. Words such as “am,” “is,” “are,” “were,” and “was” often pair up with words like “by” to connect the subject to the object.
Active: Daniel ate most of the jackfruit.
Passive: Most of the jackfruit was eaten by Daniel.
Active: Jessie fixed the bicycle tire.
Passive: The bicycle tire was fixed by Jessie
Of course, sometimes “to be” is an active verb, such as when it’s the only verb and forms an active sentence construction. There’s no question that “We are here!” is an active sentence. However, often when “to be” is an active verb, there’s no object.
Place the Active Subject at the Beginning of the Sentence
To make it easier to create an active sentence, try to put your active subject at the beginning. It clarifies who’s doing the action and makes it easier for you to pair the subject with an active verb. It’s as simple as following the “Subject + Verb + Object” sentence structure.
If you place the object at the beginning, there’s a good chance you are on your way to writing a passive sentence.
Make it Conversational
It’s true that people often use passive voice in day-to-day conversation. But we also make our language simple and accessible so others hear and understand us. An active voice sentence should be a phrase you would use in daily conversation. The use of imperative verbs, which are command verbs, can help you communicate directly with your audience: “Read on to learn how to spot passive sentence constructions.”
Read Aloud to Spot Unclear Phrasings
The last tip to write in active voice is to use your actual voice. Read your text aloud and note anything unclear. It’s likely there’s a passive phrase or two. Note what sounds confusing and see if you can make it active.
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