Willy Loman vs The Zombies
“Attention must be paid,” sobs Linda Loman about her poor, doomed husband, Willy, in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” It’s a seminal moment in a landmark play.
But when I hear that line, I don’t ponder on the importance of every human’s dignity, as Mr. Miller intended. I’m not nearly arrogant enough to question that (or any) playwright’s choice of words, and I get it, he’s making a point. But I do find myself thinking: “such a passive sentence!”
In the communications biz, I think the use of the active voice is the hallmark of good, strong writing. Things don’t just happen. Something—or better, someone—makes them happen. I believe that readers or listeners become more engaged when they can picture an actor in what they’re reading or hearing. The meaning of a sentence is also clearer when you use the active voice. “The campers arrived and a tent was set up” is weak and unclear. “The campers arrived and two of the boys set up a tent” brings you into the action, as the characters do something. I think the same principle applies to creative writing, business writing—any writing where you’re hoping to engage an audience. Passive voice gets a passive response. Active writing gets an active, engaged response. If the action is not there in the writing, your audience might stop for a moment to mentally fill it in on their own—and you’ve lost them.
Hopefully, that wasn’t your intention, although sometimes I suppose it is. For example, one well-known phrase in American politics is purposely and pointedly passive: “Mistakes were made.” Who made them? Well, the speaker would rather not say, or have you know (I’m looking at you, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Ulysses S. Grant—really!—and many, many others). To make that an active sentence would mean that someone specific made the mistake, and what are the odds of any politician ever admitting that unless they’re caught red-handed?
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and you might choose to use the passive voice for effect, as Arthur Miller did with Linda Loman’s lament about her Willy. But generally, this is my advice: if you want your writing to be more powerful and engaging, be active, not passive. After writing each draft of anything I’m working on, a read-through is done specifically aimed at catching and purging passivity. Such as in that last sentence, which would really read “After writing each draft of anything I’m working on, I do a read-through specifically aimed at catching and purging passivity.”
How do you know if you’ve slipped into passive voice? My daughter recently told me about a fun and effective way to tell: try adding the phrase “by zombies” to the end of your sentence. If the sentence still makes sense, it’s passive. Try it!
“Mistakes were made … by zombies!”
“Attention must be paid … by zombies!”
Hopefully, your writing will keep the zombies at bay. If not, try to remember two things: 1) writing with an active voice is more powerful and engaging, and 2) head shots.
Thanks to everyone who’s been kind enough to give me nice feedback on my posts about writing and storytelling. They’re not meant to be preachy (not that anyone is saying they are), I’m just happy to share some insights that have gotten me through three decades of a career largely based on the written word. I’d love to hear any actively written thoughts you might have about this post!