Cool Voices, Warm Voices


Active voice is the Holy Grail for broadcast journalists. Discover and embrace its mysterious powers, your writing excels, your stories show rather than tell, and your  job in general becomes easier because you spend less time slumped over your keyboard, frustrated,  trying to hammer out copy, and more time in the break room eating the free donuts.

Not interested?

Well,  if  you’re considering a future career move, active voice resumes stand out in the slush pile of  flat rate envelopes heaped in the corner of a potential employer’s office. Even news directors who don’t know about active voice will say, “I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something about this one…”

How about now? 

You may be thinking, “I’m too busy to learn a new writing method.”

 That’s the beauty of active voice. It’s easy, once you drink the Kool-Aid.

“Active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive,”  William Strunk explained  in his little book, THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE (You probably read it in high school or college freshman composition). One of my former news directors, Chris Danielle, would walk around the news room chanting the mantra “Who did what to whom?” That’s a succinct way of saying: start your sentence with a subject (noun), give your subject something to do (verb), and then give it a target (object).

How do you know when you’ve written in passive voice? When you’ve turned your subject into the object. Look at these examples:

The pope was shot.

The fire was put out by firefighters.

The man was arrested.

Do you see it? Was. It’s your red flag . When you see was (or were), your sentence is passive.  That’s when you ask yourself, “Who is doing what, and to whom?   

Try it. Re-write those sentences using active voice:

Someone shot the pope.

Firefighters put out the fire.

Police arrested the man.

Active voice, as Mr. Strunk put it, “makes for forcible writing.”

And it’s sooo easy. When you write in active voice, action happens. Passive voice? Eh, not so much.

Active voice particularly suits the demands of the TV journalist writing to images, and often writing around the lack of them. Every morning as we write copy for Northwest Today, my producer, Lara Harmon, hears shouts from across the news room. “What’s the video?” If Lara shouts back, “Crime scene,” I write, “Police say drug dogs discovered the pot at this house.”  If Lara shouts, “mug shot,” I write, “Police arrested 40-year old John Doe.” The words then match the pictures. What a concept, huh?

There’s another benefit to active voice; sentences are not only beefier, they’re usually leaner. In broadcast, when seconds count, shorter saves time. As Mr. Strunk put it, “Brevity is a by-product of vigor.”

I’d like to hear your favorite writing tip, best advice you’ve ever received, or writing pet peeves. Share!

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Cool Voices, Warm Voices

  1. Pingback: Rip and read or cut and paste, it still needs your twist « Write Right, Right Now

  2. Just this morning I read a Writer’s Digest article about broadening the scope of short stories by utilizing a “sweep.” The sweep incorporates background, setting, expository and backstory, but it looks at things in grand scale. Your tip is the tool, the broom, to make the sweep. I’ll use that, I’m sure (notice how I used the tip in this reply?).

  3. Judy A

    Great blog, Kevin! And since you’re talking subject, verb, object, I think my favorite writing tip fits in here well. Here it is (and this is a good way to segue into a new subject or even a flashback if you need one): make the object of your first sentence the subject of your next sentence. For instance, “John crashed right into the sliding glass door. Glass doors were always getting in John’s way. When he was only three years old…”

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