How to improve business writing skills – How do I sound professional and human?

I’m a firm believer that people don’t need to know the technicalities of grammar to be good at writing.  If you can talk, you can write.


The one thing I think we should all know is the difference between active and passive sentences.  Here’s why.  And how.

Plain language McDs

Knowing the difference between active and passive will rock your world

We know what it means to be active – Get your ass off the couch.  Go for a run.

We know what it means to be passive – Life is hard.  I’m staying on this couch until the universe brings me good things.  Poor me.

The concept is similar in writing sentences.  The active sounds good.  The passive is icky.  If you want your writing to sound good, read on.

Get shit done.  Don’t wait for it to happen.

Ultimately most sentences fall into 1 of 3 categories.

Someone doing somethingThings just happening.  Like magic.Statements of fact
(active)(passive)(Not worrying about active or passive. It just is.)
Shelly rocked our world.Our world was rocked.Shelly is 164cm tall.  True story.
Zombies eat brains.Brains were eaten.Zombies are cool.
Your manager will love this.The work will be completed.Applications close on Friday.
Notice these all start with a WHO.  And the who is doing something.Notice how there are no people, no actors, no owners of the actions.  No one is accountable.

‘The work will be completed’ by whom?  The universe?

Often we just need to pass on information.  Don’t sweat it.  Just tell people stuff they need to know.

So just to recap – write about people doing things.  Not about things being done.

(A bunch more useful but way less entertaining examples here.)

Academia’s got a lot to answer for

So why do we use that passive voice?  We can squarely lay the blame with universities.  And lawyers.  And anyone older than you in your business who’s been around longer and thinks they know stuff and you should do as they do.  And anyone who subscribes to the “It’s always been done this way” school of thought.

The academic voice has always been respected, and so traditionally as professionals we adopted it so that we, too, would be respected.

The only problem with this is that the academic voice traditionally removes the personal, the human, the individual voice.  But to be successful in business, we rely on good relationships.  And relationships involve humans.  People.  Individuals – even when those individuals represent a company.

So we’re redefining ‘professional’

Professional writing once meant formal writing.  They were one and the same.  This is ABSOLUTELY NO LONGER TRUE.  I can’t even say that loudly enough.  Formal writing, the academic voice, the passive voice, creates all kinds of problems (see below).  To be professional in our writing today, we need to be

  • clear, easy to understand
  • concise, to the point
  • personal – to establish and maintain good relationships
  • transparent and accountable

Problems with the passive

I don’t really want to labour the point, but if you’re still not sold on this whole active voice thing, here are the main problems with the passive voice.

  • It uses more words (Complete the form v The form should be completed)
  • It’s a learned voice, so it’s not natural to us.  It’s hard work. (I’m going to town v Town will be gone to by me.  WTF?)
  • No one is accountable (Mistakes were made.  It was observed.)
  • It’s often ambiguous, requires your reader to make assumptions, and can be wide open to interpretation (Again:  Mistakes were made.  It was observed)
  • You sound like a dick (Read this.  Or this.  Or if you’re really a sucker for punishment, all of these.)

Benefits of the active

On the other hand, the active voice does all kinds of great things for you.

  • It’s shorter and more concise
  • It’s more specific (less ambiguity)
  • It’s shown to engender confidence and trust
  • You sound human.  What a novel idea.

But I’ve told you all this before.

Is it ever ok to use the passive voice?

Absolutely – we just don’t want it to be our default voice.  So use the passive voice as an exception, purposefully, when

  • you don’t know the WHO (The vehicle was damaged)
  • you’re protecting yourself or someone else (The vehicle was damaged)
  • the THING (object in the sentence) is what you want to focus on, not the action or the person responsible (The vehicle was damaged)

The zombie test

Who doesn’t love zombies?  And who knew they could help with grammar? IF you want to know a cool trick to text for passive sentences, try this: If you can add “by zombies” onto the end of a sentence, it’s passive.

     It was recommended (by zombies).

     Mistakes were made (by zombies).

     The form must be completed (by zombies).

For more cool zombie-grammar stuff, read here.

Who ate the bacon?

And just for a final smile, here’s an old favourite to help us remember active and passive (Gotta love Grammarly):

A note to the grammar police

You’re probably thinking, She’s way oversimplifying this.  And you’d be right.  If you know that, then

     a) this post is not for you, and

     b) reread my opening line.  

Nothing to see here.  These are not the droids you’re looking for.  As you were.

The bar was walked into by the passive voice


About the Author:

Shelly Davies, managing director of Hamilton-based Shelly Davies Writing & Training, bounced unconventionally and entertainingly into the New Zealand communications landscape in 2012. With a brand that’s exploded across a surprising mix of sectors and industries she’s now leading the pack.“Brand Shelly” is out of the box, bubbly, pretty damn irresistible, more than a little sassy, and rapidly giving fewer and fewer f*cks what anyone thinks. And it’s working. Her writing is sharp, sought after, and highly paid. Her trainings are high energy, instantly impactful, and booked up to 2 years in advance.She did her time in the classroom torturing teenagers and indoctrinating university students with academic conventions. She killed off one husband, kicked out another one, and popped out 3 money-sucking vampires. And then she discovered something amazing: good writing PAYS. And like common sense, it ain’t common.Want more? Talk to Shelly.