In this article I’ll explain what the active voice is in the English language, I’ll highlight its benefits for the nonfiction genre and then I’ll show you several examples in a variety of tenses to highlight the contrast between the use of the active and passive voices in a sentence.
What is the Active Voice?
The active voice is a way of phrasing a sentence in which the subject appears ahead of the verb and the object appears after the verb. In essence, the subject is “actively” acting upon the object — e.g. “This fitness exercise (subject) works (verb) on your deltoids (object).”
How Does it Differ from the Passive Voice?
In the passive voice, the order of the sentence is reversed by placing the object first, followed by the auxiliary verb “to be,” followed by the original verb phased as a past participle, then followed by the preposition “by,” ending the sentence with the subject. The above example converted to the passive voice will now read: “Your deltoids (the object) are being (conjugation of auxiliary verb “to be”) worked on (past participle of “to work on”) by (preposition “by”) this fitness exercise (the subject).
How do You Use Active Voice in Nonfiction?
The active voice is the preferred voice by most nonfiction authors, because it makes the writing much more clear and direct for readers.
For a nonfiction book to be effective at engaging with its audience you need to establish a deep connection with your readers, and the best way to do so is to write with honesty and authenticity — which the active voice best captures through its simplicity.
Whenever you write authentically, you’re automatically doing so in a direct and unencumbered way. The passive voice, on the other hand, doesn’t lend itself to authentic writing because of its circuitous way of conveying a message. It’s almost as if you, the subject, were “hiding” behind your words.
For example, if you write the following sentence: “This weight-loss technique was specifically developed by me in order to help people who suffer from type II diabetes, which has been a part of my life since I was a teenager,” there’s a sense that you may be trying to hide behind your words because the goal of the sentence is for other type II diabetes sufferers to identify with your journey.
But if you were to rewrite it in the active voice as follows: “I specifically developed this weight-loss technique in order to help people who suffer from type II diabetes, which has been a part of my life since I was a teenager,” you’re being much more clear and direct with your readers, giving them a chance to identify with the subject of the sentence: you.
Nonfiction Active vs. Passive Voice Examples
For your reference, here are some useful examples that clearly illustrate the contrast between the active and passive voices through the use of sentences that share the same subject, verb and object:
(Note: PP means “past participle”)
is + PP
are + PP
Corn is grown by farmers in the Midwest
Most electric cars are bought by Californians
Farmers grow corn in the Midwest
Californians buy most electric cars
am being + PP
is being + PP
are being + PP
are going to + PP
I am being made to wait by the doctor
The engine is being repaired by the mechanic
The travel plans are being made by the agent
Several meals are going to be cooked by us
The doctor is making me wait
The mechanic is repairing the engine
The agent is making the travel plans
We are going to cook several meals
has been + PP
have been + PP
Susan has been picked up by the taxicab
The players have been selected by the scout
The taxicab has picked up Susan
The scout has selected the players
was + PP
were + PP
The gate was installed by the contractor
The curtains were dry-cleaned by her
The contractor installed the gate
She dry-cleaned the curtains
was being + PP
were being + PP
He was being kept alive by science
The plans were being altered by the man
Science was keeping him alive
The man was altering the plans
had been + PP
The chairs had been brought inside by staff
Staff had brought the chairs inside
will be + PP
am going to be + PP
is going to be + PP
are going to be + PP
The house will be vacuumed by me tomorrow
I am going to be promoted by my boss soon
A new assistant is going to be hired by me
The parts are going to be delivered by the supplier
I will vacuum the house tomorrow
My boss is going to promote me soon
I am going to hire a new assistant
The supplier is going to deliver the parts
will have been + PP
The project will have been delayed by legislation
Legislation will have delayed the project
I hope you can now appreciate how much better suited the active voice is to communicate your nonfiction writing with clarity and honesty.
If you feel the need to make use of the passive voice, rewrite your sentence using the active voice and see which version fits better with your narrative. Nine times out of ten, you’ll probably conclude that the active voice is serving your writing better.
All the best!
If you enjoyed this article and are in the process of writing a nonfiction book, be sure to check out my free nonfiction success guide, drawn from years of experience editing books for bestselling authors (including a New York Times bestseller) and ghostwriting for CEOs and politicians. Simply click here to get instant access.
Leave me a comment below if you have any questions or need any help – I operate an author services firm that specializes in helping entrepreneurs, professionals and business owners who want to publish books as a calling card for prospects, to establish their status as an expert or to just to generate additional leads for their businesses.
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Bennett R. Coles is an award-winning author of six books published through Harper Collins (New York) and Titan Publishing Group (London). He is also the publisher at Promontory Press, editor for multiple bestselling writers (including a NY Times bestseller), ghostwriter for CEOs and politicians and the founder of Cascadia Author Services, a boutique full-service firm that specializes in premium author services specifically designed for busy professionals. Our end-to-end services include writer coaching, ghost writing, editing, proofing, cover design, book layout, eBook production, marketing, printing and distribution.