In the simplest of terms, the purpose of copywriting is to persuade the reader to take action concerning your product, service, or campaign.
In the simplest of terms, the purpose of copywriting is to persuade the reader to take action concerning your product, service, or campaign. Click a link, sign up for a newsletter, visit a website, or buy the product. The verb most closely attached to copywriting is to persuade.
The verb to persuade is active; there is an action behind it and an implied outcome. To break it down further when writing copy, think about this little formula: the verb, the receiver, and the desired response. If we use the verb to persuade, that formula looks like this,
To persuade the reader to buy your product.
The verb: to persuade, the receiver: the reader of the copy, the desired response; they purchase your product.
When writing copy, you’ll want active words and sentences that push the reader toward action. That’s why there are buttons on websites named ‘calls to action or CTAs. Your copy needs to be active, so your reader is moved to do something. They are CTAs, not MWSTPYTADS. Which stands for May We Suggest That Perhaps You Try And Do Something. That’s not active.
That may be a little extreme, but if you’re writing passive copy, you’re writing is wishy-washy and unspecific. In this article, we’ll talk about active versus passive writing, why one works better than the other, and give you some tips on how to become a more active writer.
Off we go!
Active v Passive, what’s the difference
This will be simple and clear. The subject is doing the action in active writing or an active sentence. For example, the dog bit the mailman. In this sentence, the subject is the dog, and he is biting the mailman. Simple.
In an active sentence, the subject of the sentence is the focus and the one doing the action of the verb. The subject is ahead of the verb. So the subject, the dog, is doing the action, biting.
With a passive sentence, there is a circuitous route with the action, and the sentence sounds less solid. For example, The mailman was bitten by a dog. Was bitten makes this a passive sentence and clouds up the strength of the action. A passive sentence isn’t as clear and direct as an active one.
Technically, a passive sentence is not incorrect or wrong; the meaning is still there, and you’re not confused about who is biting whom. But it is less straightforward and therefore less active.
Active sentences are tight and precise. Passive sentences are more lethargic and meandering. Sometimes, passive writing works, especially if you’re copying the style of Jane Austen. For copy that inspires the reader to action, active copy is best.
Why active writing is better
Of any tip we could give a beginning copywriter, it would be to make all your content active. Passive language is not grammatically incorrect, but there is a time and a place for passive writing, and that place should never be in your copy, and that time is, well, never.
The reason for this is that passive writing sounds less confident. When writing content, you want your reader to feel confident that the information you’re giving is trustworthy and that the product or brand you’re backing is good. Active writing gives you that. Your readers are more likely to follow along and follow through with your CTAs when your writing is active.
Active writing in content marketing helps with the following:
Active writing is easier to follow and comprehend than passive writing. This is especially true for those whose first language is not English. Keeping your content active will open it to a larger audience, giving you more chances to reach and convert.
The purpose of your content is to persuade the reader to follow through with CTAs, which means clicking a link, subscribing to a newsletter, or visiting your site and buying something. Active language makes it easier for the reader to engage and follow through.
Holding the reader
Passive language can meander and loll, which makes it easier for the reader to get lost and scroll to the end of the article. In this case, they do not read; they barely skim. They do not get the meaning and do not follow the CTAs. On the other hand, active writing is less drawn out and less wandering. It is tight, clean, and pulls the reader along with its momentum.
You may be writing for your CEO or any top executive, in which case you want a strong, authoritative tone. Achieve that tone through active writing. Clear, concise, and confident is the tone for someone with something important to say. Passive writing does not sound as strong or confident, which works against the CEO title.
Connect to readers
When you’re writing web content, keep in mind the purpose of the copy is to provide information and directions quickly and easily. Active writing is perfect for this. Sometimes articles, blogs, or web copy gets so bogged down in passive writing it loses focus and can sound academic and confusing. Rather than draw the reader in and get them actively connecting to your brand, passive writing may alienate them.
How do you do it
You’ll have to pay attention to your writing to be more active with it. Right now, you’re probably so used to passive writing that you may not even recognize it. So, that’s step one, be more vigilant when writing. Here are some more tips.
They may be helping verbs, but are they helpful
Helping verbs are abundant in passive writing. These are verbs that come before the main verb and include: am, is, are, was and were, being, been, have, has had, do, does, did, will, would, shall, should, may, might, must, can, and could. There is nothing wrong with helping verbs per se, but if you notice your content is full of them, reread and rewrite. Helping verbs in sentences could make your writing passive. Get rid of them when you can.
The subject should perform the action
The subject of the sentence should have the action attached. In our early example, the dog bit the mailman, and the dog, the subject, is doing the action biting. Clear. In passive writing, the subject feels like an inactive participant. The mailman was bitten by the dog. The helping verb ‘was’ isn’t necessary for the sense of the sentence, and it certainly impedes the activeness of the words.
In this case, flip the subject with the direct object, remove the helping verb, and your sentence is active. So, the mailman was bitten by the dog, gets flipped to the dog bit the mailman. Tight, active, and has momentum that makes you ask, then what happened?
Read it out loud
Sentences with active language are easier and more pleasurable to read because the words pull you along and make you look for more. The ideas are easier to engage with, and you want more. If you read your work out loud and it feels awkward on the tongue, chances are you’ve written some passive copy.
Don’t forget your voice
Now a bit of caution. It can be easy, when thinking about writing actively, to forget that you’re a person writing for people to read. You want your copy to sound natural and have an easy flow. You could sound robotic and dry if you’re too caught up in writing actively. That’s even worse than being too passive.
The best writers know what makes them unique. They are aware of their weaknesses and strengths, what word choice makes them sound like no other, and how they explain or direct the reader in copy is unique to them. That voice is yours and yours alone, so lean into it. Cultivating your natural voice will help with being active.
If you were to listen to someone read a line from a short story by Poe and one by Vonnegut, you’d hear the style because these two authors have unique voices. Your voice is unique as well and will get more settled and more recognizable as yours the more you write.
Finding that unique voice that will allow you to write more actively takes time and a lot of self-discovery. Some say the best way to know yourself is to take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator survey. If that works for you, great. It may be too analytical for you.
We think the best way to discover your voice is to keep writing. Keep putting words on the screen or the page; as you do, ensure you’re writing actively and dumping as many helping verbs as possible.
ThoughtLab Activates You
It’s a lot to think about, and it may take time to become a strong, active writer. Maybe you’re not that strong of a writer in the first place and now, thinking about being active in your writing is throwing your whole game off. In that case, bring your project to us at ThoughtLab.
Our writers have unique voices and can write in all styles or genres. They can be passive when the time is right but constantly strive to make the copy for your website, newsletters, and blogs as active and engaging as possible.
Contact ThoughtLab for a free consultation, and let us activate your writing, so people know exactly who you are and what to do to stay in your brand’s orbit.