Jan 17th, 2022

Active voice: Making business writing move

by Synne Lindén

Active voice: Making business writing move

Active voice is an essential tool that makes your business writing more engaging and alive to the reader. It falls under the umbrella of showing, not telling (I did mention I’d talk about this a lot), meaning it brings your audience closer to the action of the content. 

It’s easiest explained like this: If you feel that the reading is slow and distanced, it’s probably using passive voice. If it’s easier to experience the events in the reading as they unfold, the text is probably making use of active voice. 

Understanding the technique and using it effectively in your business writing requires a bit of grammatical comprehension. Once you get the hang of it, though, you’ll be able to feel whether your sentences are active or not.

Active voice grammar 

OK. Let’s dive right into that grammar. Active voice has a clear and simple definition, as described by creative writing academic and author Janet Burroway:

The active voice occurs when the subject of a sentence performs the action described by the verb of that sentence: She spilled the milk.

So, in this sentence, the subject is the pronoun ‘she’. The action is described by the verb ‘spilled’. The woman is in direct contact with the verb; she’s performing the spilling, and so the sentence has an active voice. 

What happens to the text when you do this, is that it provides the reader with a sense of experience. 

It becomes easier for them to feel as if they’re immersed in whatever they’re reading about - whether that’s an exciting thriller or an evocative account of a keynote speech. 

So with active voice, the protagonist of the sentence is in control of the sentence. They’re the one in possession of the action being described, and when this is the case, the writing also becomes more approachable and relatable. Remember that the protagonist - the subject - can be several different concepts:

  • A thing (a noun)

  • A person - or a pronoun

  • An idea

  • A place

Passive voice - active voice’s antithesis

When the subject of a sentence is acted upon, rather than doing the acting, you get what’s called passive voice. The pace slows down; you can imagine someone like a Pope or other important individual reading the text; and you push the reader further away from the action of the text.

In creative writing, passive voice can be a great tool for communicating that a protagonist or other character is in a submissive or vulnerable situation. 

‘I was thrown to the floor’ is weaker (literally and figuratively) than ‘He threw me to the floor’. In the first sentence, the subject is a victim (‘I’); in the second, there’s more power, because the subject of the sentence is the abuser (‘he’).

So passive voice can work well for some things. In business writing, though, you want to aim for an active voice as much as possible. 

Unless you’re writing about a particularly vulnerable situation that you’ve experienced or you’re trying to communicate something about power dynamics, passive voice will make it harder for your audience to relate to your message. 

Other structures to look out for when you want to keep your writing in active voice are the ones that occur when you use either linking verbs (verbs that connect a subject to more information about that subject) or auxiliary verbs (a verb used in forming the tenses, moods and voices of other verbs). 

Two men fought’ is more active than ‘Two men were fighting’. The second sentence (which uses a linking verb) isn’t in passive voice per definition - but it does lag the pace of the text slightly more than the first one. 

Was it by zombies?

Distinguishing active voice from passive voice is pretty easy when the sentences are short. It becomes trickier when you’re dealing with a longer sentence - perhaps with several subjects and verbs in it. 

A good rule of thumb, which was coined by Rebecca Johnson, is that you can distinguish passive voice from active voice by seeing whether you can add the phrase ‘by zombies’ after the main verb in the sentence. If you can, that sentence is using passive voice.

Here are some examples:

  • He crossed the road - by zombies? Nope.

  • The road was crossed - by zombies? Yup.

  • He threw me to the floor - by zombies? Nope.

  • I was thrown to the floor - by zombies? Yup.

Essentially, because passive voice removes the subject of the sentence from the action in the sentence, someone else can own that action. In this case, zombies.

Here’s a GREAT passive voice tool when you’re feeling lost (with zombie functionality): Datayze - Passive Voice Detector.

Bringing your audience into your story

All business communications and content tends to have one goal in mind: To gain a better connection with the ideal audience. Whether that’s to build a relationship or make a sale, improve your know, like and trust factor or reduce your bounce rate: You want people engaged and active with your content.

Active voice is actually one of your easiest tools for doing just that. Take a look at these two business statements from an ‘About Us’ page:

We are powered by people that have as wide a bank of expertise and skills as they do passion for making a change.

People with a passion for making a change power us. Our team draws on their considerable range of expertise of skills to make your goals their drive.

How do these make you feel? Which one pulls you more in - and makes you feel closer to the message being communicated? Is there a difference in pace; in tone? The first example uses passive voice, while the second uses active. 

This arbitrary example goes to show just how much of an impact the technique can have on communicating your message sharply and effectively.

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