Write for Action

A quick tip to improve any implementation: Write active sentences.

What’s an active sentence?

A sentence where the subject performs the action of a verb.

Examples:

  • The dog ate the biscuits.
  • The mechanic threw away the batteries in the blue recycling bin.
  • You will sign your name at the bottom of the page.

An active sentence is the opposite of a passive sentence.

What’s a passive sentence?

A sentence where the action is performed on the subject.

Examples:

  • The biscuits were eaten.
  • The batteries will be thrown away in the blue recycling bin.
  • A signature will be placed at the bottom of the page.

A passive sentence leaves you wondering who did the action.

  • Who ate the biscuits?
  • Who should throw away the batteries?
  • Who must place their signature at the bottom of the page?

Passive sentences stop action because the person reading your passive sentence is allowed to assume that you aren’t suggesting that they take the action; you are merely telling them the action was taken.

Your reader could rightly assume that you are going to eat the biscuits, throw away the batteries and sign at the bottom of the page. So, the reader can go on to doing what they want to do, instead of what you’d like or expect them to do.

If people aren’t taking the actions you expect, check for passive sentences and make them active.

The people still might not do the action, but at least they’ll know they were expected to act.

Write for action and you just might get it.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

3 thoughts on “Write for Action

  • January 25, 2011 at 11:36 pm
    Permalink

    In hindsight I’m embarrassed to say that at one point in my career I trained myself to be really good at writing in passive voice. At the time I thought it made me a better communicator. Thankfully we can grow out of some bad habits.

  • January 27, 2011 at 10:02 am
    Permalink

    I’ve been thinking about this and need some help. I see the benefit of the active sentence. You’re being transparent and providing clarity.

    At the same time, active sentences can be prescriptive and sound a lot like driving people to change. “You go do this.”

    I feel like driving change means that you let people know where we need to be and why. How they actually do it is not really my concern. In which case, your language would almost always be passive… “that tree over there will provide us shelter from the rain.” Rather than… “go get under that tree over there.”

  • Pingback: Write for Action (Part 2) « Engine For Change

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *