It Was Done in the Study with the Revolver by Colonel Mustard

Photo by Dawn Beattie licensed under Creative Commons, Attribution 2.0

On the war between active and passive voice in business writing

At the risk of demeaning editors everywhere, I have a confession to make—a good amount of what I do when I work on a manuscript amounts to rearranging the furniture in a mansion (another good chunk is pruning the hedges, which we’ll cover in another post). Although it’s common—if not preferred—in business and academic communication to write primarily in the passive voice (a thorough explanation of which can be found here), effective writing requires a careful look at who’s doing what to whom and how often.

It’s reasonable to think that if something is common in certain types of writing, there’s a reason for it—and that’s the case here, too. With respect to business writing, the primary virtue of the passive voice is the tone of objectivity and authority that it carries. A sentence written in the passive voice is simply not open to debate—the study was conducted; the results were tabulated. Things just are. Naturally, this is a desirable impression to give when one is writing about one’s area of expertise or the value of one’s experience. However, writing entirely (or even mostly) in the passive voice carries other consequences, as well.

False Modesty or Passing the Buck?

First, an article written in the passive voice has no actors. No one is responsible for the events being described. Things just happen. In the same way that the passive voice carries authority, it also removes responsibility—which can be exactly the opposite of what you’re trying to convey. After all, if you didn’t have anything to do with the wonderful outcome you’re describing, why are you describing it? Are you just an awe-struck observer? Probably not.

Writing in the active voice allows you to take ownership of your part in the story you’re telling—and make no mistake, you are telling a story (see also “How to Find a Story in Data” by Ted Cuzillo). So rather than passively stating that “operational savings of 40% were realized by the accounting department,” you can take a proud step forward by declaring, “the accounting department cut 40% from its operating budget.”

Efficiency of Language is Efficiency of Thought

A secondary, but more reader-friendly reason to switch to active voice is that an active-voice sentence is much more easily understood than a passive one. Current research is somewhat sketchy, but there’s a basis for the idea that because the active voice puts the actor ahead of the action, it requires less cognitive work to understand an active sentence than a passive one. Active-voice sentences tend to use fewer words, as well, which is a useful consideration for writing that aims to present complex ideas to a wide audience—even if it’s an audience of experts.

It’s also worth noting that when learning a foreign language, students almost always learn the active voice first. Therefore, if your target audience includes nonnative speakers, you will be doing yourself a great service by writing in the active voice as much as possible.

In All Things, Balance

Ultimately, though, the goal isn’t to eradicate the passive voice from business writing. An article written all in the active voice can wind up sounding like a glorified “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” paper. Rather, the goal is to preserve its effectiveness as a rhetorical device and increase its power to give added weight to specific ideas or information in your writing.

Here’s an admittedly simple example:

Version 1
“The study was visited by Colonel Mustard. The revolver was used by him. The noise that followed was terrible.”

Version 2
“Colonel Mustard visited the study. He used the revolver. The noise that followed was terrible.”

Of course, writing is always a matter of taste, but I know which version I prefer. So before you send that article off into the world, take one more look through and see if there is anywhere that a simple swap from passive to active voice can help reinforce your intention. Whether your goal is to solve a murder or to sell a server, effective writing is one of the surest paths to getting there.

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