The first rule of writing might be “show don’t tell” but the second is surely “use active verbs.” Almost every book I own on writing stresses the use of active voice over passive. Read on to find out the difference.
Verbs have two voices, either active or passive. When you use active voice, the subject performs the action and verb expresses the action. For example – Gail opened the book. The subject is Gail, the verb is opened and the object is book.
When you use passive voice, the subject becomes the passive recipient of the action. For example – The book was opened by Gail. The passive voice will have a “double verb” – a form of the verb “to be” and the past participle of another verb, often ending in “ed” as in “was opened.” Generic verbs such as – is, are, were, was, be, being, been, be, had and have – don’t convey much and passive voice can make a sentence confusing. Active voice is short, direct and easier to understand.
Sometimes it’s okay to use passive voice such as when the reader doesn’t need to know who performed the action. Example – The building was erected hundreds of years ago. The doer of the action is unknown or unimportant.
If you look for the forms of “to be”, you can see where you are using passive voice. Microsoft Word 2003 provides an easy way to check for readability and passive voice. Just go to the Tools menu and click Options, then click the Spelling & Grammar tab. Select the box for Check grammar with spelling. Also select the Show readability statistics box. Click OK. Highlight the document you want to check. Click the abc icon on the toolbar, hit F7 or go to Tools and click Spelling and Grammar. Word will check your highlighted document, and then display information about the reading level.
You will get a box that displays counts for words, characters, paragraphs, and sentences. It will also show averages for sentences per paragraph, words per sentence and characters per word. Under the readability section, there are three useful statistics. First listed is the percentage of passive sentences – the closer to zero you score the better. Next is the Flesch Reading Ease score, which is rated on a 100-point scale. The higher your score, the easier it is to read your writing. Last is the Flesch-Kincaid Grade level. It rates on a US school grade level. If you score a 7, then a student in the 7th grade will understand your writing.
This is only a tool and there is so much more that goes into good writing. But it may provide some useful information that will help you improve what you’ve written.