Active voice: what it is and why you need to use it

This topic first appeared in my newsletter, The Write Stuff. If you’d like a monthly shot of writing and editing advice, sign up here. Photo by Lukas Blazek on Unsplash.

Do you know the difference between active and passive voice?

Writing in active voice is a huge boost to bloggers, as it’s a key part of creating SEO-optimised content.

The easiest way to differentiate between active voice and passive voice is to see where the emphasis falls in the sentence structure.

Sentences are made up of something (subject) carrying out an action (verb).

In active voice, the emphasis is on the subject performing the action. For example:

I painted the dining room.

Yeost recommends writing in active voice.

My dog loves walks in the park.

In passive voice, the action happens to the subject.

If we take the three examples above, this is how they’d be framed in passive voice.

The dining room was painted by me.

It is recommended by Yeost that passive voice be avoided.

Walks in the park are loved by my dog.

In these examples you can see that passive voice tends to be a little wordy, sometimes unnecessarily so. Active voice is short and direct, which is why it’s preferred in news reporting and SEO-optimised content on your blog.

Although active voice is preferred for your website’s SEO, that doesn’t make it ‘better’ than passive voice.

At times active voice can feel impersonal and blunt. In some situations the action should be emphasised instead of the subject. For example:

A passage from Anne of Green Gables was read at the wedding ceremony.

In this instance, the act of reading the passage is more important than who did the reading (which doesn’t need to be included in the sentence).

Active voice and online writing

Even looking at the painting example above, either voice is acceptable depending on the context. If you’re writing a blog post about styling your dining space, the passive sentence emphasising the room may work better.

If you’re using Wordpress, you may have seen the option to highlight passive voice using the Yoast SEO plugin.

Unfortunately, like most automated systems, the plugin isn’t always right. Use the plugin as a guide for possible changes, but don’t panic.

Although I’ve been trained to write in active voice, I still got several passive voice warnings in Yoast when I was on Wordpress. It’s always good to read over and edit my work again, but there are always some sentences I know are better in their original form.

Now I’m using Squarespace, I’ve got to rely on my own judgement. That’s another reason it’s important to understand the difference between active and passive voice.

It’s important to optimise your blog for SEO, but remember we should also aim to create a blog which still feels personal and human. Don’t eliminate every hint of passive voice from your work, but know there’s generally a more direct way to get your message across.

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Grammar rules: Active and passive voice explained.