The No. 1 Trick to Supercharged Business Writing
Whether you tweet, email, or grind out reports, you can supercharge your words if you follow one universal law:
Write in the active rather than passive voice.
Give it a try. To start, jot down a sentence using passive verbs. You can fix it later. Let’s say you write, “The audience was captivated by the speaker.” We might see that anywhere, right?
But turn that sentence around. Instead of “The audience was captivated by the speaker,” make it “The speaker captivated the audience.” Simply switching the subject and the object of that sentence woke it up. Basically, you want the subject to power the sentence rather than the object to cast something back on the subject. With practice, writing in the active voice becomes second nature.
More examples? “The meeting was postponed by the CEO” becomes “The CEO postponed the meeting.” “The sheriff was shot by me” becomes “I shot the sheriff.” “It was heard by me through the grapevine” becomes “I heard it through the grapevine.” Or, maybe easiest of all to remember, “You are loved by me” becomes “I love you.”
Besides, passive sentences require more words than active ones—and, like leeches, extraneous words (and even syllables) will suck the lifeblood right out of a sentence. Aim for the simplest, most concise bites of information possible. Short words. Short sentences. Short paragraphs. Keep adjectives to a minimum. And, whenever possible, let your supercharged verbs leave the need for adverbs in the dust. Your readers will thank you—and keep reading.
Now—you guessed it—there’s an exception to the rule. Maybe you want to soften the impact of a statement. That’s when the passive voice comes in handy. Politicians use this trick all the time.
Watch the difference when you change “We made mistakes” to its weak little sister “Mistakes were made by us”—or the even wimpier (and more common) “Mistakes were made.” Speechwriters know they can trust the passive voice to lull an audience into a stupor (remember your eighth grade science teacher?) If they’re lucky, the listeners might brush right past “Mistakes were made” or—thanks to a long, passively structured preamble—start nodding off even before the speaker says it.
For the most part, though, you want to rivet your readers’ attention to the page or screen. The No. 1 secret to a good read? The active voice.
Annette Burden, contributing editor for Elite Meetings, counts more years than she cares to mention editing writers for print and digital.