Let’s pretend you’ve just written a brilliant blog post. It’s fresh, clean, and took hours to get just right. You didn’t pull this stuff out of the air; you did the work, and your product is the proof. Write better? You write great.
You scroll down to the bottom of the post to do some serious SEO configuring. The article rocks, you’re sure of it. You’re about to hit publish when a tiny red dot catches your eye.
Beside the Keyword tab (if you use Yoast like I do), you notice for the first time another tab with the word Readability. The word’s confusing enough but the color makes you freeze. Red? Your readability is in the red? How? The post is awesome.
When you finally get the courage to check your readability stats (whatever those are), you’re met with a short list of “errors,” one of which which says that your percentage of sentences using passive voice is higher than the recommended maximum.
It’s the death knell you didn’t see coming, mostly because you have no idea what Yoast is trying to tell you. You’re torn between researching what to do next and telling Yoast to go jump in a lake because your post is perfect and you know it.
While you are free to assert your power over Yoast at any time, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt for a minute and see what all their griping’s about.
What are active and passive voice?
Active and passive voice refer to the subject and verb relationship in a sentence. If a sentence uses active voice, the subject is doing the action. If it uses passive voice, the subject is having the action done to it.
Wait, don’t leave. It gets less painfully-like-your-highschool-English-class in a minute.
The powers that be (no, I don’t know who they are) decided a long time ago that active voice is preferable to passive. We just have to deal with it. Good news for us, though, they didn’t just make a rule willy-nilly.
So…how can knowing this help me to write better?
Word on the street is that sentences that use active voice tend to be stronger and less wordy. They get to the point faster and better than sentences written in passive voice.
Here’s an example of active voice in action (see what I did there?):
I ate a whole load of fries for lunch.
It’s clear, it’s concise, it’s talking about me and what I ate and when I ate it. Me me me, eating fries.
Now let’s consider what happens when this sentence is transposed into its passive counterpart (but did you see what I did there?):
A whole load of fries was eaten by me for lunch.
The sentence is basic enough that even when it turns inside out, it’s still pretty clear. But did you notice that this little sentence is two words longer than the one in active voice? Did you further notice that we’re no longer talking about me (which I find upsetting) but the fries?
Fries have stolen my spotlight and are now the star of the show. The audience is no longer concerned with my eating the fries; now they care more that the fries were eaten! In what universe are fries more important than the people who eat them?!
The sentence written in active voice (the one where I was eating the fries, as I should be in any believable reality) was more concise and arguably stronger. I say arguably stronger because unfortunately, we don’t know any more about the situation than that I was eating fries for lunch. But let’s see what happens when we know a little bit more.
I left class promptly at 12:00pm and walked across the quad to the dining hall. I was starving and the line was long. By the time I reached the food, all that was left was french fries. I piled my plate as high as I could; my mom would have died. I ate a whole load of fries for lunch.
This paragraph is all about me. I am the hero from beginning to end. Nothing tries to become more important than me.
Let’s take this same paragraph but switch the final sentence from active to passive voice.
I left class promptly at 12:00pm and walked across the quad to the dining hall. I was starving and the line was long. By the time I reached the food, all that was left was french fries. I piled my plate as high as I could; my mom would have died. A whole load of fries was eaten by me for lunch.
Do you see the weakness that immediately settles over the story?
Suddenly—and without cause—fries have become important.
The only reason fries matter at all in the first paragraph is because they were all that was left and I ate a lot of them. But in the second paragraph, you get the feeling that the fries themselves are important, like they have feelings or something.
It’s as if the load of fries offered itself to me to eat and will now be missed.
The problem with treating fries like the dearly departed is that it isn’t the point of this paragraph. It’s not necessarily wrong, however, to ascribe value to fries in other paragraphs.
If you want to see some fries actively bite the dust, write it like this:
At precisely 12:00pm the fries tumbled off their baking sheet and into the stainless steel serving dish. They bounced around in a stinging salty rain before settling into a motionless hush. They watched hungry students file into the lunch room. Fry after fry soared out of the dish and shuddered in a cold ketchup bath as sophomores filled their plates. An army of fries met their end that day.
Those poor fries. You can almost feel their pain.
Is passive voice ever ok?
Go back to your internal debate with Yoast. Now you understand what they’re saying but you don’t agree. Some of those passive voice sentences are better in passive voice. Here’s an example from a post of mine that Yoast took issue with:
This is the difference between a Sunday-only Christian and a Christian who knows that their faith is integral to every aspect of their life. When we have a need, we can stop right there and pray with our kids. When we make it up the steep driveway without stalling the car (I hate sticks), we can praise the Lord with our kids in the backseat. These little moments are observed by little eyes and tucked away in little hearts. They are a theological introduction.
The sentence in teal is in passive voice. When Yoast pointed it out to me, I made the call that no, I really did want that to be passive, thank you.
It was an artistic decision; I set the rules aside.
The same paragraph with that sentence written in active voice looks like this:
This is the difference between a Sunday-only Christian and a Christian who knows that their faith is integral to every aspect of their life. When we have a need, we can stop right there and pray with our kids. When we make it up the steep driveway without stalling the car (I hate sticks), we can praise the Lord with our kids in the backseat. Little eyes observe these little moments; little hearts tuck them away. They are a theological introduction.
I could have said if this way, but it’s not the way I wanted to say it. Writers have some freedom to say what they want, how they want. Just remember the general rule that active voice is stronger and more concise. Use it more than you don’t.
To help you do informed battle with your readability plugin of choice, I’ve compiled a practice guide of sentences for you, for free! The practice guide contains sentences written in passive voice for you to rewrite into active. Oh, and I’ve also included an answer key, in case you get stumped.
Next in our two-part series on becoming better blog writers, we’ll talk about a few rules you don’t get to break, no matter what.