Direct writing

In journalism we try to report the news as simply and clearly as possible.

For example, we write that the prime minister has called a general election, in preference to a general election has been called by the prime minister.

The person who is carrying out the action needs to be mentioned first. That is, the doer of the action should be made the subject of the sentence.

For example, it’s better to write that police today arrested a man in connection with a Preston bank raid, rather than a man was today arrested in connection with a Preston bank raid.

We make police the subject of the sentence because they are carrying out the action.

Similarly it’s better to write that the health secretary will visit a Preston hospital, not that a Preston hospital will be visited by the health secretary.

The reason we write the direct way is that the direct way sounds more natural and more vigorous. It comes naturally to say that A does something to B, rather than B is having something done to hirn or her by A.

It’s the way a child would word it – John’s taken my comic. It would be surprising if a young child said it in the reverse way – my comic has been taken by John.

In technical language, the direct way is called the active “voice” and the reverse way is called the passive “voice” .

Active and passive have nothing to do with tenses. Tenses are the different ways of indicating whether the action is taking place, will take place, or has taken place.

An action word (a verb) can be written in many tenses, but each tense has its active and passive version.

The table below should help to make things clear:

TENSE

ACTIVE

PASSIVE

when it happens

the direct way

the reverse way

Present: He is taking it It is taken by him
Future: He will take it It will be taken by him
Continuing past: He was taking it It was being taken by him
Simple past: He took it It was taken by him
Future past: He’ll have taken it It’ll have been taken by him
Completed past: He had taken it It had been taken by him

To avoid confusion, these definitions for tenses are the same as those used by Wynford Hicks in his book English for Journalists, but there is no agreement among the experts on how to name tenses – or even on what a tense is!

You don’t have to learn the names of all these tenses, though anyone with no interest in how they work should think hard about whether journalism is the best subject for them.

Exceptions to the rule

Now and then it’s appropriate to break the rule to make a story appear more interesting.

If we follow the rule blindly, a routine briefing from a police press officer could result in a series of different stories all starting with Police were today hunting ….

Introductions sometimes need turning back to front for the sake of variety.

For example:

A thief who stole a pensioner’s purse was being hunted by police today.

This sentence breaks the rule, because the main action words was being hunted are passive, but it avoids starting with the word police.

A Daily Mail story illustrates how a back-to-front (passive voice) introduction can sometimes be justified:

A rogue gene is being blamed for setting off aggression in men.

It’s better than scientists are blaming because it gets the interesting words rogue gene into the first part of the sentence.

Probably the most common reason for using the passive is to avoid starting a sentence with an unwieldy title.

The subject of the verb may be the town’s planning sub-committee, but who wants that worthy title as the first words of an intro?

So we break the rule and use the passive voice:

A hypermarket in Friargate was given the go-ahead today by Preston’s planning …

This assumes you’re working for a paper that bans the expression planning chiefs as a brighter way to refer to a planning committee with a long name