In IWCC’s Effective Writing Skills workshops we encourage you to minimize the use of passive verbs because they are not as helpful to your reader as active verbs are.
When readers read a sentence with an active structure, they clearly picture your message. They see an actor taking an action. On the other hand, when readers read a sentence with a passive structure, they have to stop and figure out who is doing what to whom. Read the difference for yourself:
- Active Structure: The analyst will explain the results of the research.
- Passive Structure: The results of the research will be explained by the analyst.
- Passive Structure: The results of the research will be explained.
In sentence #2 above, the writer hid the “who” (the actor) in the prepositional phrase “by the analyst”. In sentence #3, the writer didn’t even tell us who the actor is. With passive sentences, you make your reader work harder to figure out what you mean. You also risk misinterpretation. If you don’t tell your reader who did it, they may guess – and they may guess incorrectly. Read this message written in passive as an example:
• To receive your paycheck, two payroll forms must be completed correctly and your personal information must be added to the personnel database. Instructions will be provided.
The readers do not know who will provide the instructions. Do instructions magically appear? Who completes the forms? Who inputs the information? Are the readers supposed to do something? Will they get their paycheck?
Whereas in this active version the reader knows exactly who is doing what:
• To receive your paycheck, you must complete two payroll forms and give them to the Administrative Clerk in the payroll department. The Clerk will then enter the information into our personnel database. Your supervisor will explain how to complete your payroll forms correctly.
While you can’t always eliminate passive verbs from a large document, you can use them sparingly. Here is one more example to convince you that active verbs are more helpful.
• The initiation of the implementation of the project and the acquisition of the necessary resources will be carried out to ensure targets are met.
The active alternative:
• The Design Team will start the project and they will also make sure that the necessary materials are available so we meet our targets.
People are reading millions upon millions of messages every minute. If you want your readers to understand your messages quickly and easily, make the active choice - tell your readers who did it!