When communicating (be it writing, talking, or any other type of message sending), we have two “voices” we can use–active and passive. At the most basic level, the difference is in how the subject is acting. Consider the following two sentences:
The dog chased the rabbit.
The rabbit was chased by the dog.
In the first sentence, the dog is the subject, and it is doing something. In this case, it is chasing the rabbit. In the second sentence, even though it technically says the same thing, the rabbit is the subject. The rabbit isn’t doing something, but rather, something is being done to it. It is being chased by the dog.
The first sentence is written in the active voice, with the subject (the dog) in action. The second sentence is written in the passive voice, with the subject (the rabbit) being acted upon. Why does that matter? Perception.
Which sentence is more interesting or more exciting? Maybe you don’t think either is, but I’d argue that the first sentence is far more interesting. In my mind, I can see the dog chasing the rabbit. Now, I see that in the second one as well, but it isn’t as vivid.
Maybe that all sounds crazy and unimportant, but statistics show us that the active voice is more “readable” and more engaging. Regardless of who you’re writing for, something more readable and engaging will be far more successful. Remember that all of our communication must be reader-focused.
When we overuse the passive voice, we distance ourselves from our words, and we tend to bore our readers. That said, however, the passive voice is necessary at times. If we don’t know who committed the action, for example, we have to use the passive voice: My dog was let out of the backyard.
In terms of SEO (search engine optimization), active-voice writing is one of the big things looked at for readability. If something is deemed more readable, it will rank higher in search results. That, of course, means more people will see it, and hopefully that results in higher sales. The same is true for your brochures, blogs, and social postings. If something is more readable and more engaging, your audience will relate to it better.
If you need a little help determining when you’ve used the passive voice, some folks like to use the “by zombies” rule. If at the end of your sentence you can add the words “by zombies,” you’ve used the passive voice. Let’s look again at our earlier example:
The rabbit was chased [by the dog] by zombies.