Imagine yourself as the boss of whatever you are writing. You get to choose what to say and how to say it. Now think of some bosses you’ve worked for in your life. Some of them were probably very direct speakers – straight shooters, plain talkers. They said what they meant and meant what they said. When they wanted you to do something, they asked or told you directly, no messing around.
You’ve also probably had a boss or two who was tougher to understand, because they tended to dance around what they wanted or phrase it very subtly, so that it never sounded as though you were being given an order, but it was also hard to determine what needed to be done.
In writing, that first kind of boss is the active voice. Someone did a thing. Someone said something. Someone punched that guy in the face. Someone ate the food. Everything is clear, concise and to the point. It might not sound fancy, but you understand it.
The second kind of boss is the passive voice. A thing was done. Words were said. A punch was thrown. All the food got eaten. It sounds smoother and more polite, right? Even the punching part sounds better that way. This is how people speak when they want others to calm down, to not feel as though they’re being instructed, and to maybe, sometimes, not quite understand exactly what happened. (You might also know that last one as “spin.”)
The thing about those two voices is that when taken as a whole, they affect how your piece of writing makes the reader feel, as well as affecting their understanding. Some people are excellent and thorough readers who pay attention to every word, comma, nuance and detail. Others are skimmers who like to just get the gist of what you’re trying to say. The best way to ensure that most people who read your writing understand it is to use the active voice as often as possible. This has the advantage of also making your writing feel more immediate, exciting, and sharp.
As an example, consider these two short paragraphs:
Anyone can learn to play soccer this summer! Come to our two-week camp and learn the basics of the sport, play in a friendly game every afternoon, and participate in an end-of-camp tournament to celebrate your achievements! Eat delicious, fresh food in the great outdoors and make new friends!
This summer, soccer can be learned by anyone. At our two-week camp, basic skills will be learned, a friendly game will be played each afternoon, and an end-of-camp tournament will be held to celebrate what you have achieved. Fresh healthy food will be prepared every day and eaten out of doors while new friends are made.
I hope you can sense the two moods created by the different writing styles. Even if you added a bunch of exclamation points to the second paragraph, it would still read slower and less engagingly than the first. It also uses more words to relay the same amount of information.
At its most basic, active voice is simply saying what happened, in the order that it happened. There needs to be at least one person involved before someone throws a punch, or kicks a ball, or eats a carrot. Put the subject first and you’ll generally default to the active voice. If you choose your words carefully, it won’t sound rude or blunt, but clear and emphatic.
That’s the kind of writing that gets noticed. People sit up and take notice of that kind of writing.