Secrets of a Master:
Jen Stevens on How to Speak Directly and Personally to Your Reader by Banishing Passive Voice

The best way to ensure you're speaking directly and personally to your reader is to eliminate passive voice from everything you write.

Don't panic. I know it sounds an awful lot like a grammar directive … something that you might have heard from your sixth-grade English teacher. But bear with me … this is not complicated, and it makes a world of difference in how successful your writing will be.

(I must confess, I did not pull this discussion of passive voice together by myself. For your benefit, I've borrowed the diagnosis and the cures from Dr. Thomas Murawski, a long-time advocate for clear writing. He has graciously given me his permission to use them here.)

To eliminate passive voice, of course, you have to know how to find it. Here's how to spot passive voice …

  1. If you can ask "By whom?" or "By what?" after the verb, then the verb is in the passive voice.

    EXAMPLE: "The car was driven by Megan."

    The car was driven BY WHOM? By Megan. So that sentence is in passive voice.

    EXAMPLE: "The majority of tourists, relying on the information in the brochures, had been led to believe that the best place to eat was right there on the pier at the obtrusive fish place with the neon sign."

    The tourists had been led to believe that BY WHAT? By the information in the brochures. So that sentence is in passive voice.

  2. A sure sign of passive voice is any form of the verb "to be" – PLUS – the past participle of a main verb.

    EXAMPLES OF VERBS IN PASSIVE VOICE:

    • was carried
    • were removed
    • must be reserved
    • has been lost
    • will be located

    EXAMPLE: "The baggage WAS CARRIED to the room by the bell boy."

    EXAMPLE: "There is nothing more frustrating on a trip than discovering that your luggage HAS BEEN LOST."

Fortunately, it's not difficult to eliminate passive voice from your writing. Below are four sure-fire ways to make sure your sentences are passive-free and therefore easier to read and more effective.

  1. Use "you" … and passive voice disappears. Talk to your reader.

    PASSIVE: "Good hotel recommendations are to be found at the tourist office at the top of the hill."

    ACTIVE: "You will find good hotel recommendations at the tourist office at the top of the hill."

  2. Put the actor before the verb.

    PASSIVE: "When deadlines are met by the writers, they are paid on time by the editors."

    ACTIVE: "When the writers meet deadlines, the editors pay them on time."

  3. Delete part of the verb.

    PASSIVE: "The school was opened ten years ago."

    ACTIVE: "The school opened ten years ago."

  4. Use a different verb.

    PASSIVE: "Our conversation will be kept confidential."

    ACTIVE: "Our conversation will remain confidential."

Writing about Panama's Bocas del Toro, John Mitchell uses active voice in this lead paragraph and throughout the article:

"It's a kidney-pounding ride aboard the high-powered water taxi that leaves Almirante on the Panamanian mainland. The trip takes 45 minutes and through most of it, the middle-aged American woman sitting next to me is clenching the boat's gunwale, eyes tightly shut. A squall comes out of nowhere to engulf the boat and we're suddenly blinded by sheets of rain. When the deluge finally lifts, we're gliding cross a glassy green sea at sunset, past low-slung mangroves toward our destination: the town of Bocas del Toro on the tip of Isla Colon."

And here's a selection from a hotel review in which the writer speaks directly to his reader using "you" and banishing passive voice:

"Accra Beach Hotel and Resort boasts a handsome stock of all the above on Accra Beach, the prettiest on the south coast. You'll receive your first helping of hospitality at the registration desk, where staff attitudes are as sunny and welcoming as the broad-arched view of the Caribbean's endless blue waters, which are visible from the lobby."

Now it's your turn …

Improve the following 8 sentences by rewriting them to eliminate the passive voice. How? Use "you," put the actor before the verb, delete part of the verb, or use a different verb entirely.

  1. More artistic masterpieces can be found within the neighborhood of the Prado Museum than anywhere else.
  2. Breathtaking seascapes and exotic tropical landscapes are offered by Palm Island Resort for the discriminating traveler to indulge in and behold.
  3. Opportunities for challenging tours, treks, and hikes for nature-lovers – not to mention awe-inspiring views – are offered by Pico Duarte, the highest peak in the Caribbean.
  4. In shipboard spas, the finest in European-style treatments can be experienced while cruising the world.
  5. Particular attention has been lavished on the Silver State's range of accommodations.
  6. It's more likely to be upgraded by a reservations agent to an empty suite at 8 p.m. than at 4 p.m. when bookings are still coming in.
  7. I was met at the dock by Caesar Banks, a grizzled gentleman of great humor and considerable presence.
  8. Undisturbed beaches and historic sites waiting to be explored will be delighted in.
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Published: August 27, 2001

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