The cumulative impact of writing in active voice

Go to any boxing gym and you’ll find a trainer who complains about boxers who don’t appreciate the impact of landing body blows. Most boxers want to win the bout in one fell swoop by landing the big knockout punch. That means they tend to swing for the head and don’t even think about landing effective body punches. Experienced and well trained boxers know better. They hammer madly at the larger, less protected mass that is their opponent’s torso, knowing that the cumulative impact of those strikes will deplete his energy as the rounds tick by, causing his arms to become heavy and gradually fall, leaving the head open for the decisive blow. Many writers and boxers have this in common. The body blow of writing is the active voice. Take any sentence written in the active — rather than passive — voice and you see and hear the effect. Still, most writers focus on the knockout sentence — the big, arching, lyrical assemblage of well-chosen words that floods the reader’s chest with the warmth of literary ardor. When we fixate on the sensational delivery instead of the blocking and tackling of good writing, the active voice can easily be overlooked and we fall into passive voice. Passive voice is wordy. Active voice is more direct and energetic. Observe the following examples: Passive: The bank was robbed by the vice president. Active: The vice president robbed the bank. Passive: The summer science contest was won by Sadie. Active: Sadie won the summer science contest. Passive: The software glitch caused the system to choke. Active: The system choked on a software glitch. No single one of these sentences would make or break a piece of writing. No single sentence ever does, just as no single body punch wins a boxing match. But the cumulative effect of active voice can be enormous when spread over 50 or 100 or 1,000 sentences. The increased velocity and energy of the active voice speeds the copy along and energizes the reader. Write in active voice. The knockout sentences will come.

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