Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Full Flavor Writing

By Lisa A Wroble
2004, Lisa A. Wroble

You worked hard to create a compelling character and chose vivid phrasing to bring a scene to life. Your letter to the editor is clear and concise. However, before you stuff both in an envelope for an all-postage-paid trip to NYC, read through your manuscript one more time. Have you watered down your message with passive phrasing?

Allow your reader to taste the full flavor of your prose. Involve the character (and the reader) in the action of the story. Focusing on action requires active phrasing; the subject performs the action. Passive phrasing dilutes the action -- and weakens your writing.

Language Processing

Consider how the reader processes each sentence. A standard English sentence follows the subject-verb-object pattern. The mind asks, "Who or what is the subject? What are you talking about here?" Next it asks, "What action is the subject taking?" and "What is the object or effect of these actions?" The answers to these questions provide information, which the mind processes. We communicate.

        Ms. Martin reviewed the manuscript.

          (subject)  (verb)        (object)

Imagine the mind breaking each sentence into pieces and dropping each piece into bins. The piece sent through the "subject" bin drops through the bottom, turning "on" the language processor. This is why knowing the "who or what" early in a sentence is important. The subject immediately sets processing gears in motion.

The more complex the sentence, the harder the reader works to uncover vital information. The cogs in the machinery don't run as quickly or as smoothly if the sentence is complicated. 

Diluting the Message

In passive voice, the sentence structure is rearranged to make the subject the receiver of action rather than the doer of action. When the entity performing the action is withheld until later in the sentence, the reader's language processor bogs down. Information is dropped into every bin but "subject." The bins get stacked up until eventually the processor finds the "who or what" of the sentence. Now the cogs smoothly turn and the rest of message becomes clear. The impact of the information is diluted, though, because the real doer of the action is not immediately revealed.

                Jason was offered a job by his friend's father.

                A mistake was made in the report.

                Weapons were being built in the science lab.

In these examples, helping verbs (variants of "to be") combine with the past participle to create passive verbs. The writing is weakened as it is watered down. It can also be vague: the reader wonders, "Who is building weapons in the science lab?" "Who made the mistake in the report?" She stops reading to process the vague information and make sense of the sentence. The reader's language processor works overtime.

High-Impact vs. Low-Impact Writing

Whether you're writing fiction, a business letter, or a memorandum, or even speaking with someone, active phrasing is high-impact because the subject is doing its job. The reader or listener knows up front who or what is causing the rest of the action. This is not to say that every sentence must follow the same boring pattern. Readers expect variety in sentence structure. But, keep a majority of sentences active to aid the reader in following your prose. Your story or message is then strong and clear.

Passive phrasing can serve a purpose but it is usually considered low-impact writing. It is vague; it slows down the listener's or reader's mind and shifts emphasis from the subject to the object. In a fast-paced story with intense drama, passive voice might help slow the pace, giving the reader a rest. (But watch that you don't confuse the reader instead!) In business writing, passive phrasing is handy for situations where blame may become an issue. For example:

        active:       Tom found several mistakes in the manuscript.

        passive:     Several mistakes were found in the manuscript.

Which would you choose? It depends on whether Tom's keen eye and mind will bring kudos to his department or not. The choice, in this case, is a matter of the desired impact. The first sentence is high-impact because it is active. The second is low-impact and passive.

If you want your writing to be high-impact, keep the flavor full and undiluted. Use active phrasing.