Generally, writing is more interesting when the writer describes someone doing something, rather than something being done to someone.
For that reason, broadcast writers must strive to use active voice rather than passive voice whenever possible. In active voice, the subject of the sentence is the actor doing the action of the verb. The judge sentenced the defendant to life in prison. In passive voice, the subject of the sentence is the recipient of the action. The defendant was sentenced to life in prison. Active voice allows the writer to use exciting verbs. Sentences with action verbs will be more concise and more conversational. Compare the following:
- Passive voice: Even though writing is not generally seen by the audience, it may be seen by people in the newsroom. Close attention should be paid to the difference between "it's" and "its."
- Active voice: The audience won't see your writing, but people in the newsroom will. Be sure to pay close attention to the difference between "it's" and "its."
- Passive voice: The ribbon was cut this afternoon by the mayor to open the new recreation center.
- Active voice: The mayor cut the ribbon and opened the new recreation center this afternoon.
- Passive voice: Smith was freed by rescuers.
- Active voice: Rescuers freed Smith.
Isn't the active voice much livelier and better than the passive voice?
To be sure you use action verbs, write about who does what to whom, or what does what. Instead of the defendant was sentenced, write the judge sentenced the defendant. The listener can then form a clearer picture of the action. Instead of the students were given their grades, write the teacher passed out the grades. We naturally use active voice and action verbs in conversation. You wouldn't tell someone that three pizzas were eaten by my friend. You'd say, "My friend ate three pizzas!" Sports writers are masters of action verbs. The Hornets blasted the Panthers. The Tigers bruised the Bulldogs. The Yanks shut out the Indians. The Tornado overpowered the Falcons. The Yellow Jackets raced past the Wolfpack. The Seminoles dropped Miami. San Diego held off Cleveland. Perhaps the sports action makes it somewhat easier to find action verbs for sports, but good writers can find the action even where none is obvious.
As an example of using action verbs, let's assume we're covering a story about a new kiosk-style coffee shop opening inside City Hall. We could write, A new kiosk-style coffee shop will open this week inside City Hall. The information is straightforward and accurate, and this sentence even includes an action verb. However, the lead could be much more exciting. If we take some time to imagine the action that could result from the new enterprise, we might come up with a more exciting lead: City Hall workers will soon be able to grab a Danish and sip a cappuccino without leaving the office building.
Perhaps police are planning extra surveillance on roadways during a holiday weekend. We could write a lead that says just that. But if we imagine the action, the lead could be more compelling: Drunk drivers are more likely than usual to see blue lights in the rearview mirrorthis holiday weekend. The goal is to help the audience see an action in their heads from the words we choose.
Writers sometimes become confused about the definition of passive voice and distort the tense of the verbs as a result. Reporters may omit the auxiliary verb (such as is, was, has, have or had) from sentences, believing its use results in passive voice. This interpretation is wrong. Omitting the auxiliary verb leads to the problem discussed earlier in which participles replace verbs—and the result is a verb-free zone.
Although a form of "to be" is necessary for passive voice, using an auxiliary verb, such as is or was, does not make a sentence passive. Remember: In active voice, the subject does the action. In passive voice, the subject is the recipient of the action. The voice, whether active or passive, has nothing to do with the tense.
All of the following sentences exemplify active voice, because the subject of the sentence (a teachers' union) is acting. Note that the tenses may be different, but these sentences are all in active voice.
- The teachers' union seeks a new contract each year. (continuing present tense)
- The teachers' union is seeking a new contract. (present progressive tense)
- The teachers' union has fought for a new contract. (present perfect tense)
- The teachers' union fought for a new contract. (past tense)
- The teachers' union was seeking a new contract. (past progressive tense)
- The teachers' union had fought for a new contract. (past perfect tense)
All of the following sentences exemplify passive voice, because the subject of the sentence (a contract) receives the action:
- A contract was sought by the new union president. (simple past tense)
- A contract was being sought by the new union president. (past progressive tense)
- A contract has been sought by the new union president. (present perfect tense)
- A contract had been sought by the new union president. (past perfect tense)
- A contract is being sought by the new union president. (present progressive tense)
- A contract is sought by the new union president. (continuing present tense)
By paying attention to voice and tense, you can write copy that is more accurate, more clear, and more interesting.