Most of us like things simple. Like basic math, for example. If we’d dived into the complex world of algebraic equations and Cartesian geometry, we’d likely have become scientists rather than building our lives around words.

Face it, when it comes to delving into numbers, most of us prefer direct, simple explanations. For instance, 1 + 2 + 3 = 6. Easy, right?

In our latest column for “Mountain Whispers,” the quarterly newsletter for West Virginia Writers Inc., we offer some easy math for clarity and emphasis in writing: Subject + verb + object = clear, strong sentence structure. This equation sums up active voice writing.

Right now, you’re likely thinking, well, everyone knows that. Not quite. Some very good writers with whom we’ve worked have frequently found themselves slipping into passive voice writing, which bogs down and makes cumbersome the message they want to convey.

What’s the difference between active voice and passive voice? The subject and verb act on the object, not the other way around.

Like so:

  • Active: The quarterback threw a touchdown pass.
  • Passive: A touchdown pass was thrown by the quarterback.

See how it works, and which reads better?

Active voice allows you to use verb forms with much more impact in a much less wordy way. 

So, what’s the payoff for you, but, more important, your readers? Concise and clear writing. Passive voice leads to confusing syntax, extended phrases, and unintended meanings. It leaves readers wondering what you’re trying to convey.

What should you avoid? Passive verbs such as: is, are, was, were, am, be, and been.

Which sentence is more clear and concise?

  • In her manuscript, there are many passive verbs being used.


  • Her manuscript uses many passive verbs.

Just keep in mind that the subject is the person acting on the object and the verb is the muscle that makes the action occur.

Slipping into passive voice creates pitfalls for you and your readers. Confusing, jumbled sentence structure results from passive writing. Active writing makes for clarity and conciseness. Sentences are shorter, fewer grammatical errors are made, and your readers become more engaged.

A final thought: Give those all-important verbs the respect and thought they deserve. They power your sentences. Unleash them.

Fran Allred and Mickey Johnson are the owners of We Edit Books, based in Huntington, W.Va. They have a combined 65 years’ experience as newspaper and book editors in West Virginia and across the South and Midwest. Reach them at and