Why should you reduce or remove the passive voice from your writing?
The article, which covers the need to write in the active voice, was written by TBD’s crack squad of writers. It will be read by you over the next two to three minutes and will focus on improving law firm marketing. If we carry on writing like this, the feelings which you will experience reading this article will be of distance, of separation.
Which of these following phrases do you prefer? Maybe say them out loud when you’ve read them the first time.
I ate all the dinner you cooked.
All the dinner you cooked was eaten by me.
All my readers love the active voice.
The active voice is loved by all my readers.
Sorry. We simply can’t do it. As writers, when we write in the passive, a little piece of us dies. When we have to read excessive amounts of passive writing, we feel the same way. A poor review will be given by you if we continue to write like this.
Here’s why: readers don’t like the passive voice. They may not be able to put their finger on exactly what it is about writing that is passive heavy, but when we ask them, they say that they find it untrustworthy, elusive, wheedling, that it is not the way that ‘real’ people speak. That’s why reading your text out loud is so important.
But here’s what you really need to know: busy people stop reading your article if it’s written with too many passive sentences.
You’ve probably spent hours (and hours) writing a grammatically correct article on the intricacies of an update to the law. Then, when you see the web statistics on it, you find out that, what, maybe ten people have read it from beginning to end? Your return on investment for all that time spent writing it is nigh on nothing. Think about the opportunity cost of writing an unread article. What other marketing activity could you have done that would have made a material financial difference to your business?
Aside from all the other tips and tricks that we’ll write about in other articles (including why getting readers to get to the end of the article is so important), writing in the passive voice is one of the single biggest turn-offs for readers.
Lawyers and the passive voice
But, wait, what’s this? In our experience, lawyers love the passive voice. It is safe, it alludes to things without expressly stating them, it incorporates, it protects. It’s the kind of language that lawyers use in their writing and mix with Latin words when they don’t need to. Like inter alia. Or ad hominem. It’s done to aggrandize the reader’s opinion of the author. However, it almost certainly achieves the opposite effect.
How should we deal with this inherent conflict?
First, it’s worth noting that the use of the passive voice here and there is, of course, perfectly acceptable. See this excellent post from stroppyeditor, which contains the following line:
“One obvious thing you can do with the passive (but not the active) is to omit the agent. This is very handy if the agent is unknown, irrelevant, too obvious to mention or too contentious to mention…”
At TBD, we feel that (in particular in the case of the legal profession) it is this aim to omit that means readers distrust the text. Sometimes, it’s necessary. But not too often, in our experience.
So, what should lawyers do instead? And what is the two-hat approach?
Here’s an idea, why don’t we strike a deal? A two hats approach.
When you write your legal documents, feel free to use the passive voice, wearing your ‘lawyer doing law’ hat. The passive voice will be deployed by you, you might say.
But when you write for business people who work outside of private practice, how’s about if you wear another hat? One that you put on for when you’re writing law firm marketing materials. And when you wear that hat, you agree to write using the active voice?
I make you this promise: if you write your blogs, legal updates, trade press articles and quotes in the active voice, more people will read them. People will think you erudite, to the point, precise, a thought leader. The statistics will back me up, be it social media shares, comments, blog views, or email traffic. In short, the success of your campaigns is, in no small part, based on how well written they are.
What is the third option?
Perhaps you’re game for the bolder option? Just the one hat? An active hat. Perhaps you’ll agree to write your legal advice in the active voice? I make you an additional promise if you’re willing to take on this challenge: if you do write legal advice in the active voice, more of your clients will act on your advice. The more they act on it, the more that they hold your advice in high esteem. The more they hold your advice in high esteem, the less likely they are to use a competitor.
So, what you might have thought started out as a lighthearted article on a nice-to-have writing style, has turned out to be a business critical point of differentiation from competitors. That’s hardly passive.
We know that writing law firm marketing materials isn’t easy. So, let us know if we can help. (Hint: we can!)
T: 0117 2872099
This Online passive voice checker from Datayze will help you reduce down your use of the passive voice in your writing. We used it in this article to make sure that we were writing in the passive voice when we wanted to.
Oh, and thanks to Nafinia Putra for the photo.