In your English or Language Arts classes growing up, you were probably told to write active, instead of passive, sentences. (Or at least I hope you were.) Like “Show, Don’t Tell,” the mantra, “Write Active, Not Passive,” helps when writing content, but it can take practice before you actually fully understand what it means.
So What Does It Mean to Write Actively?
Active sentences are those where the subject does something. Passive sentences are those where something is done to the subject. For example, “Joan baked the cake,” is active, while “The cake was baked by Joan,” is passive. Technically, there is nothing grammatically wrong with the passive sentence, but using too many can make your content flat.
Why Care About Writing Actively?
According to a list compiled in October 2015, by Curata, the top three things that make content effective are audience relevance (58%), engaging and compelling storytelling (57%), and if it triggers a response/action (54%) (their source: LinkedIn Technology Marketing Community). Also, according to the same article, the top five B2B content marketing challenges are producing engaging content (60%), measuring content effectiveness (57%), producing content consistently (57%), measuring the ROI of content marketing programs (52%), and lack of budget (35%) (their source: Content Marketing Institute/MarketingProfs). I’ve seen and heard statistics that it’s a similar situation for B2C businesses.
Writing actively automatically makes your content more engaging and compelling, which in turn, helps to trigger a response or action. Passive verbs, many of which take the form of the verb, “be,” are boring and convey no action. Readers are drawn into stories by action. Also because writing actively helps content engage and compel readers, you will meet the greatest marketing challenge of producing engaging content.
How Can You Ensure Writing Actively?
Keeping your eye out for “of the” and adverbs when revising and editing will go far in helping you write more actively. As you likely recall, adverbs modify verbs; they are like adjectives for verbs and typically end in “ly.” Often, adverbs are appropriate, but just as often, avoiding them can help you write more active content. For example, you could write, “He walked slowly from the couch to the kitchen,” but a more active way to write would be, “He trudged from the couch to the kitchen.”
Many times, sentences using “of the,” or other variations like “for the,” can be rearranged to make sentences more active. For example, writing, “We installed the alarms for the safety of the patrons,” can be activated by rearranging it to, “We installed the alarms for patron safety.” Simply use the search function in your word processing software to hunt out all “of the,” and then change as many as you can. Voila! Your content is instantly more active.
Another quick and easy way to write more actively is when writing dialogue. Generally, when writing dialogue, you want to make the words the people say speak for themselves. For example, instead of writing “She said, ‘John, this copier is broken,’ criticizing him,” put it all in the dialogue by writing “She said, “John, this copier is broken. Are you not smart enough to know when something’s not working?” If your dialogue is already strong, there’s no need to be redundant: “’John, this copier is broken. Are you not smart enough to know when something’s not working?’ she criticized.” It is clear from what was said that she was criticizing so you don’t need to point that out; you can just use “she said,” or if it’s clear that she is the one speaking, you don’t need anything.
It can be tempting to use a lot of adverbs when writing dialogue, too, but they’re often not needed. Instead of writing, “He talked loudly,” write, “He shouted,” but even better is to construct the dialogue so it’s obvious he shouted: “Get over here, NOW!”
Don’t Get Hung Up on Being Too Active
As with everything, balance is important. And with all writing rules, there’s always a good reason to break them occasionally. There will be times when a sentence needs to be passive; maybe you don’t know who performed the action. They key is not to activate every single passive sentence, but to evaluate whether or not you can or should activate them, and activate as many as make sense. If you use passive writing, at least be purposeful about it.
Proofread Before Pushing Publish
I love Brand Driven Digital’s advice, “Just push publish,” because it reminds me that every piece of content I put out doesn’t have to be perfect, and the great thing about digital is it’s easy to correct mistakes. But this doesn’t mean you should be reckless. At the least, proofread your content keeping adverbs, of the, and active dialogue in mind, and edit as needed to quickly and easily create more active writing, which will be more engaging and compelling for your readers, inspiring them to take the action you desire.
Do you have any quick and easy tips for writing more actively? If so, I’d love to hear about them in the comment section.