Tips on Getting Active When It Comes to Website Content

Have you ever been told off by Microsoft Word’s spelling and grammar checker for using the passive voice in your writing? It’s an easy habit to get into. But when it comes to web copy, you should try to use the active voice whenever possible.

What is the active voice?

These sentences are all written in the active voice:

  • I made some lunch.
  • Everyone enjoyed the after-dinner speeches.
  • James won the race.

Note the similarity in the structure of each sentence. It’s clear who is the subject of the sentence (I, everyone, James) and that the subject is carrying out the action (made, enjoyed, won).

Now look at the same three sentences written in the passive voice:

  • The lunch was made by me.
  • The after-dinner speeches were enjoyed by everyone.
  • The race was won by James.

The subject of each sentence has changed – to the lunch, the speeches, the race. The difference is that now the subject is having something done to it, rather than performing the action.

So why use the active voice?

Quite simply, it creates more energetic, simple, direct sentences. The subject is doing something, rather than having something done to it, which creates a sense of dynamism and progression. This is very important for web copy. Internet users need to feel excited and inspired by what they’re reading – if they don’t, it’s all too easy to click the Back button and find another website.

What’s more, the active voice creates shorter sentences. Note that all three of the active sentences above use fewer words than their passive counterparts. And on the internet, where people scan rather than reading every detail, extra words make it less likely that they’ll absorb the information on the page.

The trouble is, it’s so easy to fall into the habit of using the passive voice – particularly if you’ve written a lot of essays or formal documents in the past.* Passive phrases like “An experiment was carried out” are ten-a-penny in essays, because it sounds more professional than “I carried out an experiment”. But online content is different. Online content requires directness, clarity and – well, as much action as possible.

* In fact, I originally wrote the last sentence of the first paragraph as “But when it comes to web copy, the active voice should be used whenever possible” before I realised what I’d done. How’s that for irony?