Active Or Passive Writing For Policies and Procedures

Jack Prot

Grammar describes how language works; grammar can help us understand sentences even if we do not know the meaning of all the words in a sentence. While there are plenty good grammar books, this article will focus on the importance of the passive and active voice to policies and procedures.

Passive voice is an obstacle to clear policy and procedure writing. Passive writing is easier shown than explained. Take this sentence, “The paper was written by the student.” With active voice writing, the sentence is written as “The student wrote the paper.” See the difference? Which one do you like better? I hope you like the latter sentence. A sentence is called passive because its subject does not perform or initiate the active indicated by the verb. Rather, the subject receives the action.

Obviously, active writing is preferred over passive writing in policies and procedures. But here is where the buck stops. Writing actively is more difficult than the free-flowing passive writing style. We can all write passively. But writing actively takes thought. While writing actively is great for instructional manuals (or desktop procedures or work instructions), it is not always the best way to write for business policies and procedures. I leave this choice to you but I would advise that you test the waters to see if active writing would fair better for your readers than passive writing.

The red flag for the passive voice is some variation of an auxiliary verb (was, will be, have been, is being) plus a past participle (built, written, directed) plus by if the actor is mentioned. So tell me, which of the following two sentences do you prefer?

  1. The new account executive was hired by the sales manager.
  2. The sales manager hired the new account executive.

If you answered #2, then you got it right. This second sentence is in the active voice and it is cleaner and easier to read. Now here is the hard part; it is very difficult to write in the active voice all the time as is so obvious in my own books. The readers will love you if you can keep your writing in the active voice. Now, on the other hand, I doubt that your readers will see the difference if you only show them passive writing. Sad, but true.

And finally, the passive voice does make sense sometimes. To say that the passive voice is never appropriate is to misunderstand it. Here is an example where the passive voice makes sense. If the person who takes a particular action is unknown, then the following sentences are okay:

  1. The accident occurred because the machinery had not been serviced.
  2. Batteries are not included…sounds like a good name for a movie title.

My advice is to make every attempt to write in the active voice writing style but not to sweat it if you have to use the passive voice from time to time. And please do not apology for writing in the passive voice. And if you get any flack, ask them to join your team and help you write better.

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