Make It Simple … Make It Active

Your job as a copywriter is to convince your prospect – of something. It could be to buy a product … to donate money … or to vote for a candidate. But convincing him has to be your first, last, and only real concern.

To do this, you must make your copy easy to read. And, the easiest way to accomplish this is to write short paragraphs that contain short sentences.

But there's more to having your copy "feel easy" than the length of the sentence. The words you use – and the order in which you use them – can have a huge impact on how effectively your copy "makes the sale."

Sound familiar? This is yet another way of stressing the importance of writing in a conversational tone. And, the key to a conversational tone? Write in "active voice" instead of "passive voice." (Don't let these terms throw you if you're not familiar with them. You'll understand them clearly in a moment.)

When you chat with friends, you do so almost exclusively in active voice. That is, you put the person or thing doing the action at the beginning of the sentence. You say, "Barry Bonds hit the homerun" instead of "the homerun was hit by Barry Bonds."

You want to use active voice most of the time for two reasons. First, it's the way we speak. It's conversational. It's natural, and it's more convincing. Second, active voice makes your sentences livelier. It's much easier to imagine Bonds clobbering a ball out into McCovey Cove. (Okay, I admit it. I'm a Giants fan.) You can see him do it in your mind. With the right words wrapped around the sentence, you can just about hear the crowd roar.

Let's look at another sentence written in passive voice: "The vase was broken by the cat." When you read this, the first image (if any) that comes to mind is of a vase, whole and unbroken, perhaps sitting on a bookcase. Only at the end of the sentence does the cat come into the picture … and only after you have learned that the vase was broken. Makes it seem like the cat is almost innocent of responsibility, doesn't it? (Well, that's cats for you.)

Here's another example: "While visiting China, a brand-new idea in supplementation was discovered by Dr. Smith." When you read that, it feels like Dr. Smith was just passively standing around when he accidentally bumped into the supplement. It would be much stronger to say, "Dr. Smith discovered a brand-new idea in supplementation while visiting China." Now, you can almost imagine him talking to herbalists, picking plants beside the Great Wall, and … well, you get the point.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course. But if you want to strengthen your sentences … and be more convincing … eliminate passive voice from your final copy. Put the person doing the action toward the beginning of the sentence, before the verb.

But don't try to eliminate passive voice WHILE you're writing. Let your ideas flow out naturally. Get them down on paper first.

Then attack your copy with a keen eye. Slash passive voice out after you're finished the first draft, during your revision. Banish passive voice … and make that sale!

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

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Published: September 20, 2004

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