Compare the following passages:

My brother’s ex-girlfriend made my brother cry. As a result, the entire gallon of ice cream was eaten by my brother. Lots of loud break up songs were sung by my brother. The dog was snuggled by my brother because he was so sad. My brother was also bitten by the dog afterwards.

Now, look at this one:

My brother cried because of his ex-girlfriend. He also ate an entire gallon of ice cream, and sang a lot of break up songs. Mostly, he just snuggled the dog because of his sadness. The dog then bit him.

Essentially, both paragraphs say the same thing, yet one is definitely better than the other. What makes the second paragraph so much stronger is this little thing called active voice.

When using active voice, a subject does something—they are an active participant in the story. My brother cried. The girlfriend broke up with him. The dog bit him.

Due to the nature of the English language, the subject of the sentence becomes responsible for the actions of the sentence. The students win an award. The kids pulled the prank.

Essentially, you want to avoid using passive voice when writing academically because it takes responsibility away from the subject. “The research was conducted in S.T.A.R. Labs” makes it sound as though the research just happened to occur in S.T.A.R. Labs, but “S.T.A.R. Labs conducted the research” puts responsibility on the on the subject (and, incidentally, is how we end up with the Flash). “Gotham is guarded by the Batman” implies that Gotham is the subject of the sentence, but really, we’re more worried about Batman—he’s the one who’s doing the guarding.

Likewise, a lot of students use passive voice to avoid writing about what they don’t know. “The internet was invented by politicians” is vague—we don’t know who these politicians are that have invented the internet, when we know that we want to be as specific as possible when doing research. Alternatively, “The politician Al Gore invented the internet” is specific, and it also uses active voice.

So, how do we avoid writing in passive voice? One easy way to do that is to avoid using be verbs, or helping/linking verbs. Using words like be, been, being, is, am, are, were, and was are all examples of helping verbs that tend to make things passive, and often times aren’t necessary. “She was washing the dishes last night” is the same sentence as “She washed the dishes last night” – one is just a more active sentence.

In general, it’s better to write with an active voice, but there are times when passive voice is appropriate. Some science journals prefer passive voice because it allows for an objective response to data. Some news articles also use passive voice to put emphasis on the object of the sentence—“The victim was stabbed in the parking lot” is passive, for example, but it also puts emphasis on what happened to the victim. But in general, avoid using passive voice if you want a stronger, better written paper.