Writing Matters—Sell Your Company & Your Product By Writing In The Active Voice

As a technical writer and a marketing writer, I think a lot about how to write sentences that are clear, direct, easy-to-read, and have a bit of flair. In marketing materials, technical proposals, and manuals every sentence must make an impact, and one of the best ways to accomplish this is to write using the active voice while avoiding excessive use of the passive. Phrasing like, “We will submit the report…” and “I sent the items this morning…,” that’s the active voice. “The report will be submitted…” or “The items were sent this morning…,” that’s passive.

Although most people speak in the active voice, many consistently write in the passive voice. This tendency may stem from a mistaken belief that the way to write formally is to use the passive voice. Based on this misunderstanding, people use passive constructions in their business writing, and after a while it becomes a habit across all of their writing.

Why was the road crossed by the chicken? (passive)

Why did the chicken cross the road? (active)

Why use active constructions?

At this point you may be wondering, “What does it matter?” Indeed, passive and active sentence constructions are both grammatically correct. Still, it matters because passive sentence constructions tend to be wordy, vague, and imprecise whereas active sentences are just as “formal” but are typically shorter, more precise, more dynamic, and help paint a visual picture. Moreover, readers prefer active sentences because they are easier to understand, and they more closely mirror the way we speak. Given all of this, active sentences deliver your messages more effectively—and that’s what you want, right?!

Take a look at the following three sentences:

  1. “The timeline was developed by our team yesterday.” (Passive with subject)
  2. “The timeline was developed yesterday.” (Passive without subject)
  3. “Our team developed the timeline yesterday.” (Active)

As sentence 1 shows, passive sentences can be awkward because of the need to include “by + the subject” after the verb. You can make the sentence less clumsy by omitting “by our team” (sentence 2), but when you do so, the sentence becomes indefinite: Who developed the timeline? On the other hand, the active sentence (sentence 3) is both concise and clearly indicates who performed the action.

Active sentences also tend to be less wordy. Given the current era of scanning and multi-tasking, it’s especially important that you help your readers find the information they need as quickly as possible. Like it or not, if you don’t provide the information they want before they get impatient, they will go somewhere else.

Sentences written in the active voice also have energy and a sense of candor, both of which will keep your reader engaged. When you write actively, there is an “actor” or some other entity that actually does something. The sentence plays a role in helping your reader envision who is doing the action—they can picture Charlie and the rest of the tech team developing the software or the project manager analyzing data and creating reports.

All in all, active sentences are preferable—they are strong, specific, dynamic, and deliver your message with a bang.

How do I know when a sentence is active or passive?

What’s the difference between active and passive construction? Simply put, when a sentence is constructed actively, the subject acts. In active sentences, the subject does the action of the verb, as in these sentences (subject underlined, verb in orange):

  • We developed the software system in 2013.
  • Our marketing strategy increased profits.
  • The project manager will oversee the project.

Notice that the subject comes first and is followed by the verb. In contrast, when a sentence uses the passive voice, the subject doesn’t do the action. Instead, the object of an action is put in the subject position and the subject may not be named at all. The following are passive versions of the above examples (verb in orange, subject underlined):

  • The software system was developed in 2013. (No subject named.)
  • The software system was developed by us in 2013.
  • Profits were increased by our marketing strategy.
  • The project will be overseen by the project manager.

One more piece of information to help identify the passive voice: it is created by combining a form of the verb “to be” and the past participle form of a verb. So:

  • is + made
  • are + implemented
  • were + accepted

Should all sentences be active?

The choice between using the active or passive voice in writing is a matter of style, not correctness. And, while most of the time you should construct your sentences actively, there are times that it’s more appropriate or even desirable to phrase a sentence passively. Some of the reasons you might use the passive voice are as follows:

  • When the focus is on the action. Example: My bike was stolen.
  • When the performer of the action is unimportant or unknown. Example: A law was created.
  • When you want to avoid assigning responsibility for a job or problem. Example: A mistake was made.
  • When you want to call attention to receiver of the action instead of the performer. Example: The dog was covered in mud.

Finally, you may be required to use the passive voice in your scientific or academic writing—traditionally, students have been taught not to use “I” in such writing. These days, stylistic advice doesn’t generally prohibit using “I” in this way, so it’d be worthwhile to check your institution’s guidelines.

How do I write actively?

You may, by now, have gleefully noted that you are already producing solid active sentences. If, instead you’ve realized that your writing could use some sprucing up with the active voice, it’s pretty simple to do. All you need to do is ask yourself “who does what,” and put the sentence in that order. Pretty soon it’ll become a habit. Of course, I’m always here to write refined, lively sentences, paragraphs, and documents for you, but it’s always good to do so in your own writing as well. In the end, you’ll find that you’re selling yourself, your company, and your product more effectively.