For Impact, Use the
If there is one step you can take to give
your business writing more impact, it is this: in 95% of cases,
use the active voice.
The active voice uses the following sentence structure:
subject, verb, object. When you reverse this order—object,
verb, subject—you have the passive voice. For example:
• The dog (subject) bit (verb) the man (object). (This is
the active voice.)
• The man (object) was bitten (verb) by the dog (subject).
(This is the passive voice.)
To complicate matters, there is a second form of the passive
voice in which the subject is not mentioned at all. For
• Your application (object) has been turned down (verb).
Notice, the subject is missing, so we don’t know who did the
turning down. This is called the divine passive. Writers often
use the divine passive as a way to avoid responsibility for
their statements. Things are just mysteriously done, while
nobody actually does them! Overuse of this form suggests
The most obvious result of overuse of the passive voice,
however, is that it slows down the ‘voice’ of the material,
giving it a stilted, unnatural feeling. The order of the words
in an active voice sentence is the normal form of expression in
English, and the passive voice is really speaking backwards.
After a while, this becomes irritating to readers, and might
well make them react unfavourably to your message—exactly the
opposite of what you want. Take a look at a long letter or memo
which you found particularly tedious to read, and you will
probably find it is bogged down in passive voice sentences.
This should be a major focus when you begin editing your
writing. Each time you see the passive, try reversing it to
make the active voice. You’ll find it makes your writing more
vigorous, powerful and reader-friendly.
Feel free to use this or other articles on this site in
your in-house publication or online newsletters, so long as you
make no changes, use the entire article, and add the following
attribution at the end:
Helen Wilkie speaks at conferences and conducts
corporate training sessions on all aspects of business
communication. She is the author of Message Received
and Understood! and The Hidden Profit
Center. Contact her by phone at 416-966-5023, by
e-mail at email@example.com
or browse her main website at www.mhwcom.com