JS Tip 23: From the Writing Workshops: Rewriting Passive Voice

Rewrite passive into active in four steps:

1. Identify the action going on in the sentence: “The report was written by Sarah.” Writing. Yup. That's what's going on. 

2. Identify the do-er of the action: “The report was written by Sarah.” Sarah. She's doing the writing. 

3. Move the do-er of the action to the beginning of the sentence: Sarah . . . . 

4. Let the action of the sentence flow from the do-er of the action: “Sarah wrote the report.”



“The report was approved by the audit committee.” 

(Let's see: approving . . . audit committee . . . The audit committee . . . .)

“The audit committee approved the report.” (Eight words down to six. A twenty-five percent weight loss.) 


“Applications must be turned in by Friday.” (A tough one.) 

(Turning in . . . . whoa. No actor. No do-er. You? Implied?)

“Turn in your applications by Friday.” (This is called “imperative mode” or “command mode.” The “you” is implied or assumed: “Hey, YOU!” “Whut?” “Turn in your application by Friday!” “Okay!”) (Seven words down to six. Fourteen percent.) 


Remember this applies only to sentences in which there's action. Not all sentences include action. “Ruby was thorough” is description, not action. “The spreadsheet was examined by Ruby” is action—and in passive voice. (You can rewrite this one: Examining . . . Ruby . . . “Ruby . . . (what?)” Six words down to four. A thirty-three percent weight loss.)

One of the problems with passive voice is that it often loses the do-er. The person doing the action. It loses accountability: “Mistakes were made.” (made . . . whoops. By whom? It doesn't say. But the writer probably knows and may be reluctant to say: “We made mistakes.” (We've got the same number of words now, but we've gained accountability. Honesty trumps conciseness.) 

William DeGuia of Wells Fargo encouraged this discussion. William: Thank you.