We Need to Stop the War on Passive Voice
If you’re a writer, or if you’ve been looking up tips on how to write your content, you’ve probably come in contact with an active voice zealot, or at least of one of these:
“Your document should only have X% passive voice and more active voice.”
“Everything that can be written in active voice should be! Re-write it!”
“Death the passive voice! We should only write in passive voice for EVERY SENTENCE!”
…That last one is artistic license on my part, but I think you get the point. People ordering content hate sentences written in the passive voice rather than the active voice. It all stems from the various tests and studies that tout the power of active voice in persuading readers to take action.
In case you’re not familiar with the difference, active voice refers to a sentence in which the subject of the sentence (grammatically speaking) is performing the verb, whereas the passive voice subject is not performing the verb action. Here are some examples:
Active: Content writers write content. I wrote this content.
Passive: Content is written by content writers. This content was written by me.
Why Always Active?
The theory is that writing in the active voice inspires readers to action and spurs them on to follow through with your call-to-action (CTA). Passive voice, apparently, spurs people on to… Passivity? Passivity is not the response you want from a CTA. Anything you can do to make people follow through is a good thing. Unfortunately, you know what they say about too much of a good thing.
We’ve gone too far with active voice. I do understand the merits of the argument, but I don’t agree with how people have decided to solve it.
The biggest arguments are that passive voice sentences:
- Don’t clearly define who is doing the action
- Tend to be longer than active sentences
- Make content into more of a narrative than a relatable story
- Contain too much fluff and make content harder to read
All those points come from somewhere; they’re not completely wrong. However, I don’t think the solution is to stop writing in the passive voice completely or to measure the quality of a piece of content based on what percentage of the sentences are active versus passive.
Those same 4 points shine a light on something important: There’s no formula for great content. Bad writing can’t magically be fixed by reducing the number of passive voice sentences. Switching everything from passive to active doesn’t automatically make it better.
Too Much Active Voice Is Boring
Content that keeps the same format and structure for every sentence is boring. This is my opinion. You know what kind of writing contains only active voice sentences? Children’s books.
Children benefit from that sentence structure, because they have difficulty grasping the full meaning of complex sentences. Jane threw the ball. John caught the ball. It’s simple and perfectly appropriate for the target audience. I don’t write children’s books (not professionally, at least), I write website content.
There’s nothing wrong with writing heavily in the active voice. If that’s the style you’re going for or that’s your brand voice, great! You should have a reason why you want everything in active voice though, beyond the fact that a writing program told you it’s better.
You’ll never see a piece of content where I write everything in the passive voice. I’m not a scientific writer or a technical writer. But, you’ll also never see me fretting about what percentage of my sentences are active and how many are passive. If you expect me to produce a report about the ratio of active to passive or to follow a formulaic program that demands I change from passive to active, I’ll be grumbling audibly through your screen.
Active tense is great, and it has many valid uses in creating content of all types. Passive tense is great, and it has many valid uses in creating content of all types. If the content is good and reads well, who cares? Did you go through this whole article counting the instances of passive or active tense? Feel free to do so and let me know how much of each I used. I’m not going to go back and edit to change it.
Stop trying to create a formula for the perfect piece of content.
(You could just make it easier on yourself and hire me…. #ShamelessSelfPromotion)