Posted by: wordsmithsuk | June 12, 2011

Get active – and slim down your writing


If you only had time for one lesson in improving your writing style, let it be this: avoid using the passive voice whenever possible. Using the active rather than the passive will transform your writing style.

Look at the following example:

  • The riot was stopped by the police (passive)
  • The police stopped the riot (active)

Notice how the passive voice tends to sound formal, old fashioned and bureaucratic, whereas the active is more personal, shorter and more dynamic.

Here is another example:

  • The acceptance form should be completed before the papers are transferred.

This is ambiguous because we don’t know from reading this who should do the actions. The meaning of the sentence is much clearer when you use active verbs.

  • We will transfer the papers when you complete the acceptance form.

Here are some more examples of how to turn a passive verb into an active verb.

  • This matter will be considered by us shortly (passive)
  •  We will consider this matter shortly (active)
  • The mine had to be closed by the Health and Safety Commission (passive)
  • The Health and Safety Commission had to close the mine (active)

Passive verbs cause several problems:

  • They can be confusing (because we are not sure who is doing what)
  • They often make writing more long-winded (you need more words to express this form)
  • They make writing less lively (they are passive not active).

Using passive verbs

Although the active voice is recommended for most communications, there are times when it is preferable to use a more diplomatic passive style. This reduces the impact of negative information. Using the passive voice can make the information you are sending seem less abrupt or aggressive, softening the impact of what you are obliged to say.
For example, the rather abrupt:
  • Here is the estimate for the repairs to the window that your son broke last Tuesday.
sounds better written as:
  • Here is the estimate for the repairs to the window that was broken last Tuesday.
And:
  • We are going to make three employees redundant tomorrow.
may be better expressed as:
  • Three employees are going to be made redundant tomorrow.
Please get in touch if you want to ask a question about any aspect of business writing. Or add your comments here – I’d really like to hear from you.
jane@word-smiths.co.uk
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