April 13, 2016 words, journalist, melissa pouliot, editing, writing

By Melissa Pouliot

Should you write in active or passive voice? Or both? Not all words are black and white – something every business (and writer) should know.

As a young journo I was only ever allowed to use active voice and it’s something I’ve carried through my writing life. The reason I prefer to use active voice is exactly in its name. It’s active. Active writing is more dynamic, simpler to read, straight to the point, leaves no confusion about who is doing what, and is grammatically sound. It works so well for businesses to tell their stories in active voice and is something that all businesses should know.

But are there times when it’s better to be passive? Times when active voice creates confusion in meaning?

This week I had to concede that my use of active voice threw a whole new meaning on a sentence from an ANZAC Day piece of media writing for Merimbula RSL Club.

I wrote:

On ANZAC Day 1976 the Royal Australian Navy discharged Allan after 14 years of service.

I wrote it this way because it was active. Someone doing something to someone. But a discussion with Allan shone a whole new light on my sentence. Would people think that he had been dishonorably discharged, kicked out of the Navy because of my insistence on using active voice? With that being far from the truth, it was a reminder that black and white can make grey.

A much better sentence, which is the one that has gone to print is using passive voice:

On ANZAC Day 1976 Allan was discharged from the Royal Australian Navy after 14 years of service.

Passive because something is being done to someone. But it doesn’t raise any confusion over his discharge.

People like me, who live in the world of words, can lose sleep at night over whether the words have been placed in the right spot in a sentence. And we can spend an hour rewriting a sentence to get it just perfect.

It makes the editing process on my fourth crime mystery fiction novel quite laborious when you consider I have around 70,000 words to whip into shape…but that, is a whole different story.