Improve Your Writing Right Now: Use Active Voice

No Creative Director ever really knows exactly how much positive influence they create within their teams.  Practiced well, the CD’s impact works subtly to the point of imperceptibility, encouraging the personal growth of the individuals in their group.

That said, I strive to leave one lasting, public legacy with every writer under my direction: to shake the habit of writing in passive voice.  If they take nothing else from our time together, I want them to write with strength and vigor…to write with action and passion…to write in active voice.  Many years ago, I learned this lesson at the able hands of Mr.’s Strunk and White in their seminal “The Elements of Style” and to this day, out of respect to my high school English teacher Ms. Betty Bartles, I carry the flag for this small bit of writing hygiene.

Why is that man crying?  Too much passive voice...

Why is that man crying? Too much passive voice...

Why so obsessed over such a small point of grammar?

Because active voice feels muscular and tight where passive voice wanders listlessly.  Active verbs drive engagement while long paragraphs of passive construction creates a sense of distance.  “I write” carries an immediacy that “I am writing” lacks.  Fill a paragraph with ‘is working,’ ‘was saying,’ and ‘had been thinking’ and you can almost watch the reader’s mind untether from your argument and wander off in search of something more engaging.

Passive voice rings particularly egregiously when it appears in scripts.  At it’s lingual root, ‘drama’ means ‘to do,’ not ‘to be doing.’  You don’t ‘are sitting’–you sit.  Or better yet, you plop, you brood, you huddle; good writing uses colorful, choiceful language to paint a vivid picture in the reader’s mind of interesting characters doing things.  Active voice makes your images, stories and captions both more powerful and more dramatic.

So please–for the love of God and all that is holy and beautiful and decent–please stamp out passive voice in your work.

Of course, since I’m already on this rant, never, ever, EVER use these phrases in your scripts either:
–We see
–Open on
–Cut to

If you describe visuals, of course we’ll see them, if you begin a story, of course it opens on something, and if your story moves locations, of course you cut to something.  All of these redundant phrases slow down the flow of your script, so excise them, ruthlessly.

Thanks for reading.  And writing.  Hopefully better.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79