Content this, content that, content here, content there: content is everywhere. I’ve made my argument elsewhere that it’s an important part of your digital strategy, no matter your business size or type. And in order to reach your marketing and sales objectives, your content must be excellent. But I realized something lately: that lots of people don’t really understand what excellent content means, or how to reach that level of quality. The web is clogged with sub-par, badly written, uninteresting, plagiarized and useless content. (more…)
It's no secret that content is key when marketing yourself online—and not just any content, either. Website owners, for better or worse, need to create genuinely good writing that potential customers will actually want to read. But it's not enough to have good ideas; you're far more likely to find success if your writing is technically strong. The lack of active voice in writing is one of the most common problems people face; they are easily confused about what it is and why it makes their writing far more effective than the passive voice. By trying to use active voice whenever possible, content creators can bring passion, authority, and interest to their work—and readers will notice.
Subjects, Objects, and Verbs, Oh My!
In order to explain what the passive and active voices are, it's time for a quick grammar refresher course. There are three components to a basic sentence: the subject, the verb, and the object. The subject of the sentence is the person or being who performs the action, or verb, upon the object. For instance, in the sentence “Brian threw the ball,” Brian is the subject; he performs the throwing action on the object, the ball. Descriptive adjectives may get thrown in there, of course; multi-part compound sentences will introduce more information and there are various verb tenses to contend with, but at the end of the day the subject, verb, and object remain the pillars of basic writing.
A sentence like “Brian threw the ball” describes the subject performing a verb action upon the object; this is active voice in action. Passive voice, on the other hand, reverses things around: “The ball was thrown by Brian.” In passive voice, the subject of the sentence is acted upon, instead of doing the acting. In the example above, the subject of the sentence is now the ball, not Brian; it's not actively performing the verb, but instead is being passively acted upon by the object of the sentence (Brian).
If you compare the two examples, some key differences immediately stand out. The active voice sentence is concise and clear, whereas the passive voice example uses more words and describes the scene in a more roundabout way. Instead of one verb—'to throw'—the passive sentence contains two: to throw, and “was”—a form of the verb 'to be'. Good writing uses precisely as many words as are necessary to communicate its information; passive sentences quickly become unwieldy and it's very easy for readers to get confused. Furthermore, the passive voice takes a lot of power away from you, the writer; when subjects are being acted upon, instead of acting, then your writing does not have the energy and passion that is absolutely essential for good marketing content.
Transforming Your Writing
Using the active voice in writing—especially when related to business or trying to communicate with potential customers—will improve readability and engagement. If you're new to content creation, try going through some of your already-published pieces and look for the passive voice. Some people feel that passive voice makes them sound smarter, so it pops up a lot in business writing. It won't be as simple as balls being thrown; you may realize you've written something like this:
“Our product has been purchased by over 3,000 customers”
While it's exciting that you've seen so many sales, changing this sentence to the active voice turns it into this:
“Over 3,000 customers have purchased our product”
This version puts the power back with the customers—and potential new ones will respond to it.
Of course, the English language is a frustrating beast, so there are situations where the passive voice can work in your writing. However, they are exceptions rather than the rule; you should aim for the active voice whenever possible. Your writing will exude more passion and be far more exciting to read; and when you're aiming to add to your customer base, you want your call to action to be active!
The worst piece of writing advice I ever received? Write like you talk.
If you’ve ever eavesdropped on a conversation, you know that our verbal culture is an editor’s worst nightmare. Saturated with rotten grammar, half-baked ideas and a disturbing amount of likes, ums and y’knows, human speech isn’t exactly made for readability.
At WordCamp Victoria a couple of weeks ago, I attended a session led by Beth Cougler Blom on the topic of Genuine Blogging. She touched on some pretty serious issues regarding the personal nature of blogging, including the fears, the challenges and the consequences that bloggers have to face every day.
I know why you’re reading this sentence.
It’s short, it’s sassy and it’s surrounded by oodles of white space. It also got your attention, which is something I have to work hard to hold on to.