Category Archives: Writing

The Active Voice in Writing: An APA Style Blog

[OPENING SENTENCE #1] One challenging grammatical maneuver in contemporary writing is the proper use of the active voice.

Oops.

Because this essay is about the active voice, it might be a better idea to use a more active voice for the opening sentence. What do you think of the following alternative?

[OPENING SENTENCE #2] Proper use of an active voice is a challenging grammatical maneuver in contemporary writing.

Can you see or feel the difference in these two opening sentences?

Although the use of the word maneuver is a questionable choice in both sentences, an active voice is better illustrated in the second opening sentence. That’s because “active voice” is the subject and “challenging grammatical maneuver” is the object or outcome that an active voice acts on.

I think.

Editors, publishers, and even the 6th edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association advise neophyte writers to eschew the passive voice. They also suggest eschewing words like eschew and neophyte, but that’s another topic altogether. For now, we are admonished to use the active voice. The Publication Manual also encourages prospective APA authors to use first-person language to promote clarity. I like that.

But what exactly is the active voice?

The active voice involves a subject acting on an object. For example, “She is depressed,” includes a subject “She,” a verb, “is,” and an object or outcome “depressed.” An active voice involves arranging the sentence in a way so that the subject acts on the object. Another example, “Depression crept into him” illustrates how, in some cases, it’s possible to anthropomorphize or animate an entity so that it becomes the actor and what you might usually consider the subject becomes the object that is acted upon. This is a good example of flexibility and creativity in writing, but a less good example of an active voice.

Here’s another (and clearer) example that you might find in a research paper:

“The researchers reported insignificant results.”

In this case, “The researchers” are the subject and they’re taking the action of reporting insignificant results.

Many writers find it difficult to use or maintain an active voice. The passive voice may feel easier or more natural and therefore be used when the active voice would be more clear and succinct. Here’s the passive voice version of the preceding example:

“Insignificant results were reported by the researchers.”

Note that although the passive voice is factually correct, it’s less parsimonious and less direct and therefore less desirable.

Grammar Girl is a good source for more active and passive writing examples [you can listen to her grammatically correct and calming voice at: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/active-voice-versus-passive-voice?page=all#sthash.Ys1GOZN9.dpuf]. Here’s what she has to say:

A straightforward example is the sentence “Steve loves Amy.” Steve is the subject, and he is doing the action: he loves Amy, the object of the sentence.”

Another example is the title of the Marvin Gaye song “I Heard It through the Grapevine.” “I” is the subject, the one who is doing the action. “I” is hearing “it,” the object of the sentence.

In passive voice, the target of the action gets promoted to the subject position. Instead of saying, “Steve loves Amy,” I would say, “Amy is loved by Steve.” The subject of the sentence becomes Amy, but she isn’t doing anything. Rather, she is just the recipient of Steve’s love. The focus of the sentence has changed from Steve to Amy.

If you wanted to make the title of the Marvin Gaye song passive, you would say “It was heard by me through the grapevine,” not such a catchy title anymore.

Grammar Girl also noted on her podcast that sometimes writers (or speakers) intentionally use a passive voice, or at least a neutral voice. This resulted in the following examples in our University of Montana class today.

This wall is painted (neutral voice).

The painters painted this wall (active voice).

This wall was painted by painters (passive voice).

As you can see from these examples, identifying an actor (or subject) in a sentence may or may not be important or relevant. Grammar Girl also used the example of President Ronald Reagan’s famous “Mistakes were made” line. She noted that, for obvious reasons, sometimes politicians (or others) want to be vague about assigning linguistic responsibility to a specific actor. The more active voice alternative might have been: “I made mistakes.”

Finding your active voice and avoiding a passive voice requires awareness, practice, persistence, and motivation. To help with this process, I have a few tips you might want to try out.

  1. Watch out for the word “by.”

Both of the passive voice sentences in Grammar Girl’s examples included the word “by.” This is often the case. You might remind yourself of this tip by using the following self-statement [Can you reword this sentence to make it more active?]: “I’m going to say bye to by.” Or—even better—you might use the preceding self-statement to remind yourself of this tip (notice I managed to give you this tip again while getting rid of my new nemesis: the word “by.”

2.  Be aware of your use of the word “of.”

Typically, it’s a good idea to try not to use “of” more than once in a sentence. This can be hard and many good writers ignore this tip. In fact, really good writers will violate most basic writing rules. For example, the APA Publication Manual authors even ignored it. Consider the two following statements and think about which one you prefer.

From section 2.04 of the Publication Manual:

“An abstract is a brief, comprehensive summary of the contents of the article.”

An alternative:

“An abstract is a brief, comprehensive summary of the article’s contents.”

Many readers (and writers) may prefer the original APA Manual sentence. However, in my professional writing I often find myself annoyed with how many times I use the word “of” in an initial draft. And so my point is to watch out for sentences that include “of” too often. Even if it’s not technically the passive voice, using “of” too often may begin feeling passive.

3.  Don’t let your tendency to write in a passive voice stop you from writing.

No writers ever write a perfect first draft. My best advice on this is for you to start looking forward to the opportunity of transforming your passive voice into a more active voice when you edit your work.

Perhaps what’s most interesting about writing and speaking about grammar is that it—writing and speaking about grammar—can cause the writer and speaker substantial self-consciousness. And, if you’ve followed psychological research in this area, you know that self-consciousness can cause or increase anxiety. That’s why I need to confess that substantial anxiety (not to mention self-doubt) accompanied the writing of this essay. Or should I say: The writing of this essay was accompanied by substantial anxiety (no, I should not because this second example is that dratted passive voice again). That’s also why I want to end with strong encouragement for throwing off your anxieties and writing right through whatever personal writing quirks you may be facing. Write now! You can fix the quirks later.

Learning Activity

  1. Which of the following sentences from your homework reading is the best example of an active voice?

a.  “Each paragraph should be able to be read and understood in isolation from the rest of the manuscript.” (Knight & Ingersoll, 1996, p. 209)
b.  “A multitude of small details must be taken into account to produce a publishable work, and editors truly appreciate writers who are cognizant of addressing these details.” (Brewer et al., 2004, p. 21)

c.  “Ethical principles must guide every aspect of professional writing.” (Brewer et al., p. 21)

2.  Write a sentence with an active voice.

3.  Write a sentence with a passive voice.

4.  Other than spacing and citations, name one way in which the preceding blog post violates APA style.

5. (Discussion question for class) Why do you think that it’s sometimes acceptable to include a passive voice instead of an active voice?

More information on using an active voice is available generally online and specifically at Purdue’s OWL website: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/539/02/

Finally . . . this is NOT an official APA style blog. If you want to check out the real thing, go to: http://blog.apastyle.org/

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On Being or Becoming a Writer (Again)

While I was taking notes on Mary Pipher’s “Writing to Change the World” book, a bug flew in my eye. It was at the precise moment I was typing the following quotation: “When we equivocate we lose an opportunity to build our identities as writers. If you are not doing it already, I advise you to learn to say you are a writer” (p. 76).

Shall I really say “I am a writer!” even if it doesn’t feel quite right?

Or should I be more honest and describe the complete situation by saying, “I am a writer who is trying to write, but I have a bug that just flew in my eye and that’s making it more difficult than it might otherwise be.”

Didn’t someone once say that honesty is the best policy? And isn’t there a story about George Washington honestly confessing that he chopped down a cherry tree that he had no particular business chopping down. Of course that story is a lie and as it turns out Betsy Ross didn’t really sew the first American flag, but she had some fairly effective promotional people who either thought she did or decided to lie on her behalf.

What if I just tell a microscopic white lie to myself? Is that a problem?

Or maybe I just need an agent who will lie willy-nilly on my behalf? I’ve sort of always wanted somebody who would do something will-nilly just for me.

After all, honesty will only take you so far and the only advice my father gave me about being married was that “You don’t have to always tell your wife EVERYTHING you’re thinking.” That’s good advice, except that it contradicts with what Carl Rogers said about maintaining a transparent relationship and how he learned the most from being completely honest with his wife about the things that were most difficult to talk about.

Wouldn’t it be true, however (this, I understand, is how attorneys like to begin questioning the person who has just taken the stand), that lying destroys relationships and can take you to prison where you might share a cell with Piper Kerman. Then again, she wrote a book (Orange is the New Black) that got made into a television show and that’s pretty cool.

It’s very difficult to find clean and straight answers upon which everyone agrees. I’ve noticed this and thought I should honestly articulate this observation.

When I’m doing counseling with young people who have anger problems or who are cutting or who are embracing a negative and unhelpful identity, I sometimes ask them to consider thinking differently about themselves. The technique is a little bit of a knock off of Alfred Adler’s Acting As-If. I don’t ask them to pretend or to tell themselves bald-faced lies, but instead to tell more of the complete hairy-faced narrative truth. For example, when a girl tells me she’s got a “terrible temper,” I suggest and implore and encourage her to capture the WHOLE DARN NARRATIVE and instead tell herself something like, “I believe I’ve had a terrible temper in the past, but I’m working on it.”

Pipher (not Piper) says I should learn to call myself a writer. Obviously that worked for her and she’s been immensely successful and now she’s sharing it as a writing strategy. But what if that doesn’t work so well for me? What if my mantra is that I’m a writer who’s got a bug in his eye and that darn bug is making it terribly difficult, but I’m working on it?

What if I prefer a different hat style?

Here’s what I like instead: “I am becoming a writer.”

I most definitely like that better. I am becoming is a better fit for my tentative always in flux and change and self-reflective in-moderation identity.

I am becoming a writer.

And I hope you are too.

Professional Writing for Us Professionals Who May Not Quite be Writers . . . Yet

This past week I’ve been searching in vain for the origin of my favorite pithy advice to aspiring writers. It may have been Flannery O’Connor or George Orwell or another literary-type who noted or shouted or penned the phrase: “Writers write.”

This nice thing about this advice is that it’s simultaneously very general and very specific and very redundant all at the same time.

But there are also different breeds of writers who write.

While I was at the University of Portland, one of my noon-time basketball buddies was a Math professor. When he wasn’t making fun of his own stutter-step dribble or teaching classes or waxing his 1967 Mustang, he was writing a mathematics text. He told me his writing philosophy—which was really more of a strategy, but then he was a math guy. Every night he wrote one page of his textbook. Just one page . . . and he didn’t go to bed until he had completed this nightly homework. He never said, “Writers write.” He just wrote.

Another one of my Portland basketball buddies was an English professor, writer, and poet. He didn’t talk much about writing, probably because he was too busy reaching in and hacking my arms as I tried to shoot. When I asked him how he thought computers had affected writing and writers (this was the late 1980s), he said he thought there was too much cutting and pasting going on. Lines or stanzas or paragraphs would find their way to places where they didn’t belong. He was a real writer; a literary guy; a pen and paper type. He also wrote every day, but he was too interested in the muse to ever start or stop himself on a clock or a page.

This brings me to my point.

In the Department of Counselor Education at the University of Montana, we have a brand new doctoral-level course on advanced research and professional writing. As a caveat, I should note that we make no claim to be real (aka literary) writers. But that won’t stop us from doing what real writers do and following their advice.

We will write . . . every day . . . and not just because writers write, but also because of what the great science fiction writer Ray Bradbury suggested: “Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.”

We will see what happens. We would like to have very pleasant careers.

There are many writing genres and styles and venues. It can be confusing. There are blogs and grant proposals and professional journal manuscripts and book chapters and emails and books and magazine articles and personal journals and the letter you should be writing to your mother. There are also many places to publish and many more places for not publishing. Right now I have at least 50 unfinished and unpublished blogs and commentaries and journal article manuscripts and books on my computer. This work is sitting and waiting for renewed inspiration or focus or time. I fear that I’m violating Annie Dillard’s advice on whether to hold ourselves back or break free. She wrote: “Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.”

Speaking of hoarding, we don’t plan to keep this writing experience all to ourselves. And this brings me to my point (again). All who read these words may participate. Here are two examples of what you can do:

  1. You can read these blogs and provide commentary or critique. For example, shortly after posting the blog, “The Long Road to Eagle Pass Texas” my wife and co-author informed me that I had made a glaring grammatical error. If you read that post and can identify a grammatical error, please offer up your feedback. You can email me directly at john.sf@mso.umt.edu or post on this blog.
  2. You can write a guest blog. Everyone in our real (not virtual) class will have this assignment. As long as the blog focuses on writing or the helping profession or both and you’re open to feedback, please submit. I will assign it to a doctoral student for review and if it makes it into this blog, you can count on an incisive, but perhaps grammatically-challenged introductory comment from me.

In the meantime, just read . . . intensely . . . and write . . . even if only for yourself . . . and struggle with the muse like a wrestler or dancer or whatever metaphor fits best for you here.