Using the active voice

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This week we’re comparing the active voice and the passive voice.

It sounds scarily grammatical, but stay with me. Once you know how to use them, the active and passive voices are powerful writing tools.

What is the active voice?

The active voice is all about energy, direction and, yes, action.

We usually write simple sentences in the active voice. Here’s an example:

Rosie built the shed.

The person who is acting (Rosie) is at the beginning of the sentence. She comes before the verb (built). She kicks off the action and the sentence continues from there.

What is the passive voice?

You could also write this sentence in the passive voice.

The shed was built by Rosie.

This time Rosie, the ‘doing’ person, comes after the verb. The shed is now at the beginning.

We can even use the passive voice to take Rosie out of the sentence altogether:

The shed was built on Monday.

In this version we don’t know who built the shed. We can use the passive to hide the identity of the ‘doing’ person. They become a grammatical secret agent.

Three reasons to use the active voice

People tend to use the passive voice far more than they need to. Most of the time, the active voice is the best option:

  • It’s clear

It’s amazing how confusing the passive voice can be. Here’s an example:

The medication should be given on Wednesday and taken on the same day.

This rather odd sentence makes much more sense when we put it in the active voice:

The pharmacist should be given to the patient on Wednesday. The patient should take it on the same day.

Avoid the passive voice and you avoid confusion.

  • It’s dynamic

You can tell that the ‘passive voice’ isn’t a party animal just from its name. It’s clunky and lifeless, and it sucks the excitement out of any sentence it meets.

Holly was proposed to. (Sorry? Did you say something?)

Holly was proposed to by David. (What was that about Holly and David?)

Let’s try the active voice:

David proposed to Holly! (Woohoo! Crack open the champagne!)

  • There are no secret agents

One of the most unhelpful things about the passive voice is the way it can hide the ‘doing’ person.

When you arrive at the hospital, you will be taken to the ward.

Did you spot the ‘secret agent’? The writer has left out the person who will take the patient to the ward. This makes it harder for the reader to imagine what will happen when they arrive at hospital.

It even sounds a bit threatening, as though some faceless individual will grab them from behind and march them off under protest.

We can remove this unnecessary mystery by using the active voice:

When you arrive at the hospital, one of our nurses will take you to the ward.

By identifying the ‘doing’ person, we’ve made this sentence much clearer and friendlier. It may seem like a little thing, but it makes a big difference.


Let’s put the active voice into action! Come back on Thursday for grammatical fun in the Write for Real People Workshop.

Of course, there are times when the passive really is necessary, but we’ll save those for next week…

Workshop: Cut the waffle

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Welcome back to the Write for Real People Workshop. Today we’re cutting the waffle and making our writing clearer and more powerful.

Here’s an example of a rather waffly letter:

Cut the waffle 3.JPG

This language in this letter sounds official and authoritative, but on closer inspection a lot of it is unnecessary.

We can cut about half of the words in the letter:

Cut the waffle 2

Let’s see what that looks like…

Cut the waffle

Excellent! By cutting the waffle, we’ve made this letter shorter and easier to read. As a result, the writer can get their message across much more effectively.

How can you start cutting the waffle in your writing? Let us know in the comments below.

Cut the waffle

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One of the greatest threats to good writing is ‘waffle’.

The word ‘waffle’ may conjure up cosy images of hot waffles for breakfast with whipped cream and maple syrup, but in the writing world, waffle is much more dangerous.

Waffle is unnecessary text that suffocates your message.

Here’s an example:

While we recognise that all children develop at their own pace, it is generally recommended that babies, toddlers and small children are not left unsupervised with items that contain small parts, as this may cause choking. With this in mind, we advise that you avoid giving this product to any children under the age of three, to prevent this unlikely but serious outcome.

The writer has a very serious message to give, but he has cloaked it in so much unnecessary padding that it has completely lost its impact.

Let’s strip all that waffle away:

Do not give this product to children under the age of three. It contains small parts that may cause choking.

The result is a direct instruction that’s easy to follow and a clear concise explanation for it.

Diagnosing waffle

If you’re a serial waffler, don’t despair. It’s a common problem and it’s easily fixed. When you’ve identified the reason for the waffle, you can start cutting it out of your writing.

Here are three reasons for waffling and how to tackle them:

  1. You’re not exactly sure what you’re trying to say

If you’re not sure what you’re trying to say, take some time to work out what the key points of your message are. That’s the hard part. Once you know what you’re trying to say, you can just go ahead and say it.

  1. You’re worried about making your point directly

If you’re worried about making your point directly, ask yourself why that is. Perhaps you don’t want to sound ‘bossy’. Remember that your reader will expect you to give them instructions (take a look at our previous post on this topic: Like a boss).

Perhaps you will need to draw attention to something that’s awkward or unpleasant. It can be difficult to find the right words for a sensitive topic, but try to avoid lots of unnecessary skirting around the issue. Choose your words carefully, by all means, but make sure the essential information is easy to find and understand.

  1. You’re trying to make your writing sound impressive

If you’re trying to make your writing sound more impressive, you might need to consider whether this is a good strategy. Text that’s full of waffle just isn’t effective. Readers will give up on it, no matter how impressed they may be by the writer’s vocabulary.

This is a particularly bad tactic if you’re writing public information. Long, wordy paragraphs can intimidate the very people you’re trying to engage and educate. Shorter sentences and simpler words are usually the way to go.


Ready to start tackling the waffle? We’ll be back on Thursday for some waffle-busting fun in the Write for Real People Workshop.

Workshop: Hey, you!

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On Monday we learned how to use the second person pronoun ‘you’ to your advantage. Today we’re going to try it out on this piece of writing:

Hey you 1

The name ‘Speedy Clean’ sounds fun and friendly, but here the writer has chosen a rather formal and old-fashioned tone. They are not addressing the reader directly, referring to them instead as ‘residents’ or ‘interested customers’:

Hey you 2

These are all areas where we can inject a bit more life by addressing the reader in the second person (‘you’).

Let’s see how that changes things:

Hey you 3

By addressing ‘you’ we’ve made this advert friendlier and more engaging. Whether you want to give important information or just to sell something, like in this advert, the second person pronoun is a great way to get the reader’s attention.

So, what do you think? Let us know how you use the second person pronoun in the comments below…

Hey, you!

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If you need to get your reader’s attention, using the second person pronoun ‘you’ is a great place to start. It’s one of the most powerful and persuasive tools you have as a writer.

Compare these two examples:

For customers who need help setting up a mortgage, Wafflington Finance are here to talk them through it.

Do you need help setting up a mortgage? At Wafflington Finance we’re here to talk you through it.

The second example is much more effective. It prompts the reader to identify their need for the service and to imagine how it could help them in their own life.

Here are a couple of reasons why you might be avoiding ‘you’ (and why you shouldn’t):

1)      Using ‘you’ feels informal

Perhaps if you’re used to more formal writing, addressing the reader as ‘you’ might take a bit of getting used to.

Now obviously, it’s not always appropriate to use ‘you’. If you are writing a piece of legal documentation or an academic essay, the second person pronoun might not really fit with the tone of the rest of the piece.

However, some writers have a tendency to be more formal than they need to be:

Visitors are asked to give their tickets to the guide at the door, who will show them to their seats.

It usually sounds much friendlier if you address the reader directly:

Please give your ticket to the guide at the door. They will show you to your seat.

This is still perfectly professional and appropriate, but it engages with the reader directly and is therefore more effective in getting the message across.

2)      Using ‘you’ means being precise

Another reason you might be avoiding ‘you’ is because it means you have to be clearer. This is a good thing for the reader, but if you, the writer, aren’t exactly sure what you’re saying or don’t really want to say it, it’s tempting to avoid it.

For example, this writer has conveniently avoided giving any precise directions:

It has come to our attention that an incorrect delivery has been received. Unfortunately, our team are unable to collect the item, so the item should be posted to our customer services team. The correct item should be received within six weeks.

The writer is trying to gloss over the fact that the company has made a mistake and the customer will need to help fix it. They’ve been deliberately vague about who needs to post the item to the customer services team, for example.

In reality, it will be much more helpful for the customer to have clear instructions:

We’re sorry to hear that you have received the wrong item. Unfortunately, our team are unable to collect the item, so please post the item to our customer services team. You should receive the correct item within six weeks.

Using ‘you’ forces the writer to be upfront about the impact on the reader. Whether you’re giving information or instructions, it’s best to be as clear and direct as possible, even if this means acknowledging some awkward facts.


Come back on Thursday for some ‘second person pronoun’ fun in the Write for Real People Workshop…