3 voices in writing: use the right one



This week we’ve been studying sentence style. Examples that we read of authors with awesome sentence style include Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, and E.B. White. Sentence style elevates the author’s writing so it flows smoothly, omits needless words, has parallel construction, and uses active voice.

Most people have heard there’s both an active and passive voice in writing. And they’ve probably been told more than once to “use active voice” — which means to change the “to be” or “passive” verb like “is” into an active verb like “dances.”

But as the image above so eloquently illustrates, there are actually three voices in writing:

  1. Active voice
    “You ate all the bacon.”
  2. Passive voice (as also illustrated above in my sentence)
    “All the bacon was eaten.”
    (The problem is this raises the question of by who? you?)
  3. Passive-aggressive voice
    “You ate all the bacon and no one else got any. Don’t worry; it’s fine. Clearly, you needed all that bacon.”

Please note that in the illustration above, the third voice example has a run-on sentence: “Don’t worry it’s fine” consists of two complete sentences (or two independent clauses). I fixed it with a semi-colon which usually does the trick.

Also note that “voice” can refer to how a writer sounds on the page–whether readers can hear the writer’s voice in the text. That voice is often reflected in sentence style. Revising for this kind of voice isn’t so easy, so that’s a post for another day.