How to Write in the Active Voice

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Efficient writing makes everyone more productive.
Efficient writing makes everyone more productive. (Image: working help desk four image by Paul Moore from Fotolia.com)

Business policies and procedures are frequently wordy. Besides impeding employee understanding, wordy documents increase business cost because of additional writing time needed to create and maintain them and additional reading time needed to comprehend and follow them.

A common example of such wordiness follows: "The purpose of this manual is to describe..." While certainly acceptable English, this passive writing style uses eight words to say what active voice writing style can say in three: "This manual describes..."

Using an active voice when writing can reduce document word count 20 to 30 percent without any loss of information value.

Learn the Techniques

Whenever possible, minimize use of articles and prepositions (e.g., a, an, the, of). For example, instead of writing, "Take the second (pink) copy of the invoice and...," write "Take second (pink) invoice copy and..."

Use imperative rather than suggestive mood. For example, instead of writing, "You should next take the lever marked 'A' and move it to the Neutral ('N') position," write, "Move lever 'A' to Neutral ('N') position."

Choose sentence structures that place actor and actions at the beginning of an instruction. For example, instead of writing, "Large pieces of broken glass and other debris will be removed by disaster recovery teams," write, "Disaster recovery teams will remove large pieces of glass and other debris."

Apply the Techniques

Ensure that you understand your company's documentation standards.

Confirm your source information.

Draft your new or revised document text to company standards, incorporating active voice writing techniques. Experiment with word use, positioning and presentation to minimize narrative content.

Review the completed draft to ensure you have complied with documentation standards and have not omitted any source information due to active voice writing techniques.

Tips & Warnings

  • Active voice writing takes considerable practice to master. However, even nonexperienced business writers can improve the presentation and textual content of any document through careful application of active voice concepts and techniques.
  • Never sacrifice document clarity for use of active voice.

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References

  • "Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications"; Microsoft Corporation Editorial Style Board; 2004
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