WE want people to see us as dynamic and active, someone who gets results. But when we write, we often do it in a way that shows us as passive and indirect — all without realising how we’ve sabotaged ourselves.
Carol wrote the business proposal. (active)
The business proposal was written by Carol. (passive)
The business proposal was written. (passive)These examples show the difference between the active and passive voices, and they’re the only two we use when we write.
The first sentences shows Carol taking action — writing her business proposal, and maybe hoping for a pay rise or promotion.
The second focuses on the business proposal being written and the third shows how we can lose information that may be useful — dropping Carol from the sentence.
When we use the active voice, we show a doer acting on an object. In the active example, Carol is the doer, writing is her action, and the business proposal is the object she acts upon. We’ve written a sentence that’s quick and easy to understand.
When we choose the passive voice, we put the doer after the verb and end up with a flat sentence that often uses more words — while also losing writing energy.
Active writing carries more impact. It's that simple. Most of what we read in newspapers and magazines, and on news websites, is active: it’s the kind of writing we pay to read. It’s also how we prefer to speak.
Passive writing often feels evasive. Where it enables us to avoid mentioning the ‘doer’ it may prompt readers to feel that someone is trying to dodge a bullet.
And it also makes the writer seem… passive.
So why is the passive voice so common in business writing? Well, it feels detached and formal, and implies objectivity that’s often an illusion.
It often makes writing feel boring and obscure. Read anything written by a lawyer, scientist or accountant, and you'll understand why. Yet we may cling to this approach in the belief that it’s more professional, carrying added authority. It isn't, and it doesn’t.
There's also the possibility that we might be afraid to use the active voice because it feels too bold, too definite. We may have an unpleasant truth we feel it might be best to say softly.
The point is not to avoid any use of passive sentences, but to make a conscious choice on what we want to achieve.
Mary threw Bob out of the house last night. (active)
Bob was thrown out of the house last night by Mary. (passive)Regardless of whether Mary is being reasonable, the active version shows her taking action, which grabs our attention and makes the sentence lively. The passive version feels awkward and clumsy.
Active sentences don’t have to involve people at all, nor does the action have to be the kind you’d find in a Hollywood blockbuster. But it might be…
Blood covered the body. (active)
The body was covered with blood. (passive)This is a nuanced choice, depending on where you want to place your focus — the body or the blood. And on how poetic you want to be about something grisly.
Where your building works are concerned, several mistakes have been admitted. (passive)Boy, is this an ugly sentence. It feels evasive since no one is owning up to making the mistakes. Readers want answers and zoom in on areas where omissions seem part of a cover-up. The writer of this sentence has avoided making a confession but created a new issue — angry readers.
You want readers to arrive at the same meaning, even though they bring different baggage to their reading. Who made the mistakes? Workmen? The site foreman? The building company? The architect? The reader? It makes more sense to be direct.
We/I made several mistakes during your building works. (active)This sentence won't win any writing awards, but at least it's active, direct and less likely to annoy readers — unless the mistakes aren’t fixed. Clearly, it would also make sense to apologise. How can you do that convincingly if you're not prepared to own up to making a mistake.
Sometimes, you may opt for a passive approach because you actively want to avoid finger pointing. Be careful...
A member of the accounts department was accused of fraud. (passive)If the accounts department has a small enough staff, one of them may feel relieved by the anonymity, while the rest feel aggrieved that colleagues believe them to be guilty.
Of course, it's possible that legal issues may stop you from being more specific. And that's fine, even if it's a difficult choice that irritates some people. The main thing is to know what you want to say, and take the most honest approach within any obvious restrictions.
There are also times when knowing who took action is implied or irrelevant, times when a passive approach doesn't create a loss of writing impact.
Police arrested a 35-year-old man today for the murder of… (active)
A 35-year-old man was arrested today for the murder of… (passive)Here we are more interested in who has been arrested than we are in who made the arrest — we understand this is usually the police.
Breaking into a sweat over a single misplaced passive sentence is overkill. But a document riddled with them will drive readers away.
The active voice is easier to read than the passive one, and your first task with any document is to keep people reading until they reach the end.
It may take time to diagnose whether you have a passive sentence habit, and that discovery may shock you. It's the hardest writing habit to change because it's so ingrained, but you can gradually shift to a more active approach if that feels comfortable.
Microsoft Word can be set to highlight possible passive sentences and I’ll show you the pros and cons of software analysis in a later post.
For now, look for the word was in your verb and you may be looking at a passive sentence. It’s not a fallible guide — as in the building works example given here — but it’s a start.
Bob was thrown out of the house last night by Mary.
The body was covered with blood.
Where your building works are concerned, several mistakes have been admitted.
A member of the accounts department was accused of fraud.
A 35-year-old man was arrested today for the murder of…If you find yourself clinging to a passive writing approach you've only just discovered you had, ask yourself why you're reluctant to change. Are you afraid to be upfront? Feathers sometimes need to be ruffled for good reasons. And you’re making roughly the same point, even with the passive voice — you’re just trying to make it more palatable by disguising it. If you’re not prepared to be direct, should you say it at all? It's your choice, and your writing reputation.
Being direct is not the same as being blunt. You aren't going to become a troll as long as you choose your words with care and aim for balanced writing.
Ultimately, you are what you write. if you develop an active voice approach, and feel comfortable doing so, you’ll become a more active person — as well as a better writer.