How to Move from Passive to Active Voice in Your Business Writing
Most people write too passively in their business writing. They use too many verbs that are forms of to be, which force sentences into convoluted shapes that are hard for readers to untangle. Worse, all those to be verbs make writing so dull that many readers don’t even want to try.
Active verbs say everything more directly, clearly, concisely, and colorfully. If you want to transform everything you write quickly, pay attention to verbs and build your sentences around active ones.
Thinking action in your business writing
Active voice and action verbs are not the same thing grammatically, but this isn’t a grammar guide. For practical purposes, don’t worry about the distinction. Just remember to cut back on the following word choices:
- Is + an -ed ending: As in, Your attention is requested.
- Are + an -ed ending: As in, The best toys are created by scientists.
- Were + an -ed ending: As in, The company executives were worried about poor writers who were failing to build good customer relations.
- Was + an -ed ending: As in, The ice cream was delivered by Jenny.
- Will be + have + an -ed ending: As in, we will be happy to have finished studying grammar.
- Would be + an -ed ending: As in, The CEO said a new marketing plan would be launched next year.
The solution in every case is the same: Figure out who does what, and rephrase the idea accordingly:
- We request your attention.
- Scientists create the best toys.
- Company executives worry that bad writers fail to build good relationships.
- Jenny delivered the ice cream.
- We’re happy to finish studying grammar.
- The CEO plans to launch a new marketing plan next year.
Verbs endings with -en raise the same red flag as those ending in -ed. For example, I will be taken to Washington by an India Airways plane is better expressed as An India Airways plane will fly me to Washington.
When you rid a sentence of to be verbs, you win a chance to substitute active present tense verbs for boring, passive past tense ones. Many professionals work this tactic out on their own through years of trial and error. Writing in the present tense takes a bit more thought at first but quickly becomes a habit. Use present tense everywhere you can and see your writing leap forward in one giant step.
Look closely at all your sentences that contain is, are, and the other to be verbs. See whether an action verb can bring your sentences to life. Often, you can use the present tense of the same verb:
- Original: He is still a pest to the whole office about correct grammar.
- Revised: He still pesters the whole office about correct grammar.
At other times, think of a more interesting verb entirely:
- Original: She is intending to develop a surprise party for the boss.
- Revised: She is hatching a surprise party for the boss.
Trimming there is and there are from your business writing
Big-time culprits in the passive sweepstakes are the combinations there is and there are. This problem is easy to fix — just commit never to start a sentence with either. Keep away from there will be, there have been, and all the variations. Don’t bury them inside your sentences, either.
Check out the following examples and improvements:
- Original: There were 23 references to public relations in the report.
- Revised: The report cited public relations 23 times.
- Original: There is a helpful section called “new entries” at the top of the page.
- Revised: A helpful section called “new entries” appears at the top of the page.
- Original: It’s expected that in the future, there will be easier ways to communicate.
- Revised: We expect easier ways to communicate in the future.
In every case, using an active verb does the trick, and almost all reworked sentences are in the present tense.
Cutting the haves and have nots from your business writing
Like the to be verbs, using the various forms of the verb to have signals lazy writing. Find substitute words as often as possible. A few examples and possible rewrites:
- Original: He said he had intentions to utilize the equipment he had been given by the company.
- Revised: He said that he plans to use the equipment the company gave him.
- Original: We have to make use of the talents we have.
- Revised: We must use our own talents.
Using the passive deliberately
Despite all the reasons for minimizing passive sentences, passive verbs are not bad. You need them on occasions when the actor is obvious, unknown, unimportant, or the punch line. For example:
- The computer was developed in its modern form over a number of years.
- After long trial and error, the culprit was finally identified as the Green Haybarn.
You can also make a case for using the passive voice when you need to frame a message in terms of you rather than we or I. When writing to a customer, for example, you may be more effective to begin as follows:
- Your satisfaction with the product is what we care about most.
Rather than this:
- We care most about your satisfaction with the product.
The second statement gives the impression that it’s all about us. Of course, don’t write an entire letter like the first opening — just the first sentence.
The passive is also useful when you don’t want to sound accusatory. The bill has not been paid is more neutral than You failed to pay the bill.