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Healthcare content2 min read Healthcare copywriting pro tip: Use the active voice

The active voice can make your healthcare content more lively and clear.

June 10, 2019Melissa Welling, Editor

Want to capture your readers' attention with lively and compelling prose? Here's a quick tip: Use the active voice more often.

The active voice can make your copy more concise, clear and personal. And if you're trying to meet health literacy benchmarks, it's a smart way to make your writing easier to read.

Active vs. passive: What's the difference?

First, a few definitions: Active voice is when the doer of an action is the subject of the sentence. Passive voice is when the person or thing acted upon is the subject of the sentence.

Active: Lady Gaga [doer] will give the keynote address [thing being done].
Passive: The keynote address [thing being done] will be given by Lady Gaga [doer].

But you don't need an English degree and a sentence diagram to spot passive voice problems. Just look for forms of the verb to be (is, are, was, were, has been, will be, etc.) and ask yourself:

  1. Who is doing the action?
  2. Is that person or thing front and center in the sentence?

Those two questions can highlight writing that still needs some work. Take these examples:

Passive: The man was found injured by EMTs. (Did the EMTs hurt him? Or did they find him?)
Passive: The program is intended to bring mammography services to people in rural areas. (Who intends it? Does that matter?)
Passive: She was told that the cancer had spread and her treatment options were discussed. (Who told her? Was the experience caring or clinical?)

3 quick fixes

Try these three tips to solve passive voice problems in your healthcare content:

1. Flip-flop it. Move the doer to the front of the sentence:

Active: EMTs found the injured man.

2. Activate the verb. Sometimes you don't need to change the subject of the sentence—just delete the passive verb:

Active: The program will bring mammography services to people in rural areas.

3. Invite the actor on stage. Is someone important hiding in the wings? Make it clear who's behind the action:

Active: Dr. Jones told her the cancer had spread, and they talked about her treatment options.

It's a tool, not a rule

There's a fourth fix you might want to consider too: Do nothing. Sometimes the passive voice is the simplest and clearest way to communicate with a healthcare consumer:

Passive: You will be given a blood test before surgery.

If you're preparing for surgery, you probably care most about what will happen to you, not who will do it. So it makes sense that you is the star of the sentence above, rather than:

Active: A phlebotomist will take your blood, and the lab will test it before surgery.

So use your best judgment. If the passive voice sounds natural and clear, there may be no need to change it.

Turn to the healthcare copywriting pros

Need help writing or editing your healthcare content? Coffey's team includes writers and editors with experience in all aspects of healthcare copywriting, including writing for health literacy. To see examples of our work and find out how we could help you, call 888.805.9101 or email us.