Use the active voice in writing
Which of these headlines is most likely to spur you to sign up for a webinar?
New webinar helps managers improve productivity
Get all your work done in half the time, be the office hero and go home early
The first focuses on the webinar. But the second one focuses on me doing things. That makes the second one more compelling.
Want to watch your words get shorter, your sentences sleeker? See your passive voice disappear and your readability soar? Energize your writing? Populate it with real, live humans? Focus on benefits instead of features?
Use the active voice in writing. In other words, write about people doing things.
Why use the active voice in writing?
When you write about people doing things, you:
- Activate passive sentences. You know the difference between active and passive voice:
- In a sentence written in passive voice, the subject is acted upon by the object. Object verb subject.
- In a sentence written in active voice, the subject performs the action. Subject verb object.
- Improve readability. Writing in the passive voice also makes sentences and words longer and reduces readability. Take this passage:
That’s important: Writing in the active voice helps people read sentences faster, understand them more easily, remember them longer and enjoy the process more.
People doing things — Subject verb object — is the structure of the active voice. So turn passive-voice sentences into active-voice sentences by writing about people doing things:
No: Mortgage payments must be made …
Yes: Homeowners must make mortgage payments …
The difference in readability between writing about Medicaid and writing about you? Sentences are 73% shorter; words, 111% shorter; and Flesch Reading Ease is up 192%.
How to use the active voice in writing
The Little Red Schoolhouse writing course recommends that you:
- Use the simple sentence structure: Subject verb object. Think of your sentences as short stories with clearly identifiable characters acting concretely.
No: Its failure could affect vehicle directional control, particularly during heavy brake application.
Yes: You won’t be able to steer when you put on the brakes.
- Make subjects humans. Write about people doing things, not about things doing things.
No: Growth occurred in Pinocchio’s nose when lies were told by him to Geppetto.
Yes: Pinocchio’s nose grew longer when he lied to Geppetto.
- Write in verbs, not nouns. Nix nominalizations, or words that turn verbs (like explain) into nouns (like explanation).
OK, that one’s been through the De-Verb-O-Rizer a few times! Look at the verbs buried in those nouns: expectation, ruling, interference, harassment.
Don’t commit verbicide. Write about people doing things:
Active voice in action
Wendy Jorgensen increased readability of this message by 40%, mostly by focusing on people doing things.
Here’s the City of Plano senior marketing and communication coordinator’s before:
Note that 70% of these sentences focus on things doing things, not on people doing things.
Here’s Wendy’s after:
This time, 92% of the sentences focus on things doing things, not on people doing things. What a difference in readability that makes. By writing about people doing things, Wendy:
- Whittled word count by 13%.
- Slashed paragraph length by 68%.
- Streamlined sentences by 45%.
- Reduced syllables per word.
- Reduced Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level by 38%.
- Increased Flesch Reading Ease by 40%.
Want results like these for your own message? Use the active voice in writing. Write about people doing things.