Double the Power of Your Content with This One Change

by Sharon Hurley Hall

Last updated on August 3rd, 2017

As a copywriter you want to make your copy as appealing as possible and one key way to double its impact is by making it more action-oriented.

It turns out that getting active isn’t just good for your health; it’s good for your writing. At least that’s the common wisdom when it comes to marketing copywriting. Most experts (but not all, as we will see later) extol the value of active verbs. But why do they do that and does this advice really make sense? Let’s dig deeper and see what’s behind it.

Before we do, here’s a shocker: an active verb isn’t really a thing. Or rather, it’s a copywriting thing and not a grammatical thing. If we’re talking grammar, then what you have are the active voice and the passive voice.

Understanding Active and Passive Voice

What’s the difference? It’s all about how you construct your sentence. The screenshot below from the English Club shows that you can have active and passive constructions for different tenses and parts of speech.

Active and Passive Examples EnglishClub

The difference between the active and the passive is about whether the subject of the sentence is performing the action or whether someone or something else is performing an action on the subject. Here are some examples:

The company released the product yesterday (active)

The product was released by the company yesterday (passive)

If you’re reporting on conversion metrics, you could say:

The offer was ignored by all the visitors (passive)

All the visitors ignored the offer (active)

When It Makes Sense to Avoid the Passive

It turns out that there are good reasons to avoid the passive and stick to active voice and action verbs where possible.

The Purdue Online Writing Lab says using active voice keeps writing concise, which is one of the rules of good writing. By doing this you avoid wasting words, make every word count and end up with a better piece of writing.

On Business2Community Steve Masters points out that using active voice is a good way to avoid corporate speak (often in the passive) and make your writing easy for readers to read. Active voice makes your writing more energetic and robust. Note that the same article points out that it’s not always appropriate to ignore the passive, but most of the time it’s the right call.

Active Voice and Marketing Copy

Using active voice also helps people picture themselves taking action, so it’s no surprise that it’s considered so important in marketing copywriting. After all, when you write your page copy, you want it to convert – and that means convincing readers to take action on your offer.

Wishpond advises marketing copywriters to use short, action oriented words in calls to action (CTAs). Tell people what they have to do and they’re more likely to do it. That’s why a button below a web form that says “start your free trial” is more likely to convert than one that says “submit”.

Conversion XL agrees, and adds that having an active CTA with supporting information that tells people what they will get, (it cites the example of Spotify’s home page) will make your CTA more successful.

spotify home page

Hubspot cites research that shows that using verbs generates more Twitter shares. The writer recommends that you begin your CTA with subjects and verbs (in other words active voice) to help readers understand what you’re telling them quickly. At the same time, it’s worth reducing the use of adverbs and using practical language in your copy to emphasize benefits.

Using Zombies to Spot the Passive

zombies walking

Sold on the benefits of a more active approach to writing? If you are, then here’s what you do:

First, use less passive voice in your writing.  The examples earlier in the article will help you spot the passive, but there’s an even easier way. One of my favorite ways to identify and eliminate the passive is the zombie method. It works like this:  if you add ” by zombies” after your verb and the sentence still makes sense then it’s passive. Here are some examples:

This product was bought [by zombies] yesterday. (passive)

He bought [by zombies] a book today. (active)

It was decided [by zombies] that the CTA must be changed [by zombies] (passive)

We decided [by zombies] to change the CTA. (active)

See how easy that was (and fun, too)? Try it with your own copy and see how many passives you can eliminate.

If you’re not into zombies, visit Jerz’s Literary Weblog for another take on recognizing the passive. The TL:DR version is if the subject of the sentence sits there while someone else takes action, it’s passive.

Getting Active with Your Copy

Once you find and eliminate the passive, you need to replace it with something. It’s not enough to turn sentences in the passive voice into sentences in the active voice. For good marketing copy you have to pick the right verbs and other words that lead to conversions. Buffer’s ultimate list of words that convert is a great starting point to improve your copywriting. The list includes several verbs such as compare, hurry, join, verify, create and many more. There’s also great advice on where and when to use particular groups of words for better conversions.

Is the Passive Always Bad?

Not all uses of the passive voice are bad. Sometimes overzealous grammar checkers will weed out supposed “passive constructions” that actually make perfect sense in context.  An article on Econsultancy points out that sometimes it’s more important to highlight the person on whom the action is being performed, as in the case of the assassination of JFK.

Sometimes the passive is an important part of the story you are telling in your copy, so you have to use it and you shouldn’t be afraid of that. As a New York Times article says, if you need to emphasize that something has been done to the subject of a sentence, if you don’t know who has done the action, or if it allows you to focus on a particular aspect of an action.

And an article by Michael Fortin suggests that breaking the rule against the passive can sometimes make key terms stand out more to readers.

In most cases, using active voice and action verbs makes your writing stronger and more effective. As a writer, it’s up to you to decide which voice is most appropriate when.

What’s your view on using the passive in writing?

*Image Credit: Walking zombies photo by Lindsey Turner.

Read other Crazy Egg articles by Sharon Hurley Hall.

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Sharon Hurley Hall

Sharon Hurley Hall is a professional writer and blogger. Her career has spanned more than 25 years, including stints as a journalist, academic writer, university lecturer and ghost writer. Connect with Sharon on her website.

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  1. Pam Neely says:
    August 29, 2015 at 12:49 pm

    Great article Sharon! The zombies trick is too funny. And I had not seen Buffer’s Words That Convert list in awhile – thank you.
    There’s also a free online tool called the Hemingway App http://www.hemingwayapp.com/ that highlights passive voice in any text you paste into the tool.

    • September 2, 2015 at 8:12 am

      Yes, I’ve come across Hemingway, Pam. I’ve downloaded the desktop version to try it.

  2. Matt G. says:
    August 24, 2015 at 8:12 am

    This is interesting… I’m going to have a look at some of my copy to see if I’ve been using action or passive statements. Definitely worth testing, thanks.

    • Sharon Hurley Hall says:
      August 28, 2015 at 8:40 am

      Glad you found it useful, Matt.

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