Active vs. Passive Style in Your Business Writing

Posted May 9, 2012 by Marcy Twete in Building Your Brand

My college advisor was responsible for numerous exciting breakthroughs in my young life. But even she would say that one of the greatest things she teaches students is the difference between active and passive voice. And while the correct use of active vs. passive voice is critical in academic writing, it’s just as imperative in business writing – especially when it comes to resumes. So here you have it, from someone who took years to understand it, a crash course on active vs. passive.

What is active voice?

According to my favorite writing resource, Grammar Girl, “In an active sentence, the subject is doing the action. A straightforward example is the sentence “Steve loves Amy.” Steve is the subject, and he is doing the action: he loves Amy, the object of the sentence.”

What is passive voice?

Again, pulling from my dear Grammar Girl, “In passive voice, the target of the action gets promoted to the subject position. Instead of saying, “Steve loves Amy,” I would say, “Amy is loved by Steve.” The subject of the sentence becomes Amy, but she isn’t doing anything. Rather, she is just the recipient of Steve’s love. The focus of the sentence has changed from Steve to Amy.”

Tips for Active vs. Passive in Business (Specifically Resume) Writing

  • Less is more. How many times have you written a sentence that starts like this, “Responsible for the delivery and execution of staff training and professional development services.” Jigga wha? That, my friends, is passive voice. What’s a good word for “Responsible for delivery and execution of…?” Try “Managed.” Active voice is saying, “Managed training and development programs for a staff of 20.”
  • Don’t start a sentence with something that seems like a list. If you say, “Responsibilities included” and then rattle off a bunch of things, you’re using passive voice. Instead, use action words – planned, budgeted, managed, facilitated, etc.
  • So what? This is the most important question you can answer on a resume. I recommend moving line by line through your resume and for every bullet point, ask yourself “So what?” If you can’t answer the question, chances are you’re in passive voice. Change to active and it might be clearer what the outcome was and direct action as well.

Get active in your writing – and you’ll stay on top!

About the Author

Marcy Twete

Marcy Twete is a career fundraiser turned corporate responsibility executive, a career and networking expert and the author of the book "You Know Everybody! A Career Girl’s Guide to Building a Network That Works."