March 5, 2012
The problem with passive voice is the same problem that makes bureaucracies so inefficient and customer service so frustrating the glaring absence of someone to take responsibility. Many people resort to writing this way because they believe it sounds formal and professional. George Orwell astutely lampooned this style of writing in his still fresh essay, Politics and the English Language, advocating:
“Decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally.”
Orwell’s 4th rule for writing effectively is clear on this point: “Never use the passive where you can use the active.” Job seekers often resort to passive voice in order to avoid overuse of sentences that begin with “I” because that is another resume tip candidates will often hear. While there are times when passive voice can be valuable, it is good to know how the passive voice sounds in context and why it is in your best interest to avoid the passive voice in resumes and cover letters.
Turning Passive into Active
Passive voice means that the writer has moved the direct object or predicate nominative to the front of the sentence. As a result, the verb becomes compounded and the subject of the sentence is moved to an adverbial phrase in the end or is completely erased. “I did it,” is active. “It was done by me,” is passive. Let’s take a look at a few common passive constructions and how active voice improves them.
- Passive: 20 percent revenue growth was realized in our department over two years.
- Active: My team realized 20 percent revenue growth over two years.
- Passive: A promotion to Supervisor was awarded to me after only one year of service.
- Active: After only one year, I earned a promotion to Supervisor.
- Passive: Responsibility was recognized as one of my strengths.
- Active: I am responsible.
Passive voice eliminates or downplays the agency of the action. In your resume and cover letter, you don’t want to come across as a spectator to your own career. Make sure you are inclusive about who helped you with phrases like “my team,” or “our department” but be sure to take credit for your best qualities and what you have accomplished.
When Passive is Good
The time when passive voice may be appropriate is when you want to draw attention to the result instead of you. Perhaps you want to make a point but your contribution to the accomplishment was not clear, as in:
“All departmental sales goals were exceeded during my tenure there.”
Another good reason to use passive voice is when the subject of the sentence is so complex that an active construction would lessen the impact. For example:
“Over $50 million in audited savings were recognized by the accounting department in the first year alone due to a variety of employee suggestions that I implemented.”
The third case is where you or your accomplishments are the direct object of the sentence and the subject doesn’t really matter, e.g.:
“My designs were awarded the top prize for three years in a row.”
Passive vs. Implied
You will hear many conflicting resume tips, but resume advice sites routinely stress the importance of using active voice. The Harvard Graduate School of Education, for example, puts it succinctly:
“Describe your accomplishments in simple but powerful statements in active voice that emphasize the benefit to your employer.”
Make sure you understand the difference because some career sites confuse the term “passive voice” with “implied subject.” Sentences that start with a verb like “Managed a team…” imply the subject “I” but are sometimes erroneously called passive constructions. These are perfectly acceptable, especially in bullet points. Just remember this: if whatever is at the start of your sentence is not the one doing the action, but the one that the action is being done to, that’s a passive voice construction. It is a stiff, convoluted style that makes your resume or cover letter instantly forgettable. So find the action and the actors, switch around the order and prove to your new employer how active you really are.