Grant Writing Tip #5: Use Active Voice

Once upon a time there was a little girl named Goldilocks.  One day while the forest was walked in by Goldilocks, a house was seen by her.  The door was knocked on, and, when a response was not heard, the house was entered by Goldilocks.  Three bowls of porridge were sitting on the table.  Hunger was felt by Goldilocks, so the porridge was tasted by her, one bowl at a time.

You know how the story goes:  the first bowl was too hot, the second bowl was too cold, but the last bowl was just right.

If you’ve read this far into the blog, you get the prize for tolerating intentionally passive voice.  Did you notice how indirect the wording is?  Or how many words it took to complete a thought?

As promised, I’m devoting this blog post to one of my biggest pet peeves – using passive voice.  So, I apologize in advance for the rant that follows.

Shaking My Head

It amazes me how many well-educated Americans developed the very bad habit of writing in passive voice.  The habit is so engrained that when habitual passive-voice-writers read a passage written in active voice, it sounds odd to them.

A few months ago, an executive director hired me to edit a grant proposal.  She reviewed my edits and sent the document back to me, reverting back to passive voice a few of the passages I had converted to active-voice.  My husband chuckled when I shook my head and growled.

Thus, my conclusion that many people have become accustomed to the drone of passive voice.

The Tell-Tale Signs

Don’t know the difference between active and passive voice?  Aside from my fellow English majors and the occasional amateur grammarian, not many people do.  So you’re not alone.  The important thing is to recognize passive voice and use it sparingly.

In passive voice, the subject of the sentence – the person/thing performing the action – is written after the verb.  The object of the sentence – the person/thing being acted upon – is placed at the beginning.

About now, your eyes may be starting to glaze over.  Stay with me just a little longer.  I’ll give you a few examples so you can start to recognize passive voice, and then I’ll explain why this is so important for grant writing.

Look/listen for this passive sentence structure: “[Noun] [verb phrase] by [noun].”

Example 1The meals will be served by volunteers from the community.
Active Voice:  Community volunteers will serve the meals.

Example 2More than 200 youth have been enrolled in the program in the past year.
Active Voice:  The program enrolled more than 200 youth in the past year.

Example 3All objectives will have been met by December 31.
Active Voice:  We will meet all objectives by December 31.

Want more?  Check out this list of examples.  I also appreciate the response that someone posted about cohesion.

What’s the Big Deal?

As I’ve pointed out in earlier posts, the grant world is so competitive that you need to do everything in your power to improve your chances that the grant reviewers will actually read your proposal.  And if they start reading, you want to keep them engaged to the end.

Shifting from passive to active voice will transform your writing, making it more direct, succinct, and reader-friendly.  Your readers will sense the power of your writing and appreciate the fact that you said what you needed to say in fewer words.

Take the Active Voice Challenge

Open one of your recent grant proposals, choose one paragraph, and count how many of your sentences fit the noun-verb-by-noun structure.  If you used passive voice more than once in a paragraph, spend a few minutes re-writing it in active voice.  Then the next time you develop a proposal, you’ll be more aware of your writing style.

Before long, your writing will please even Goldilocks – not too long, not too short – just right!

Looking Ahead

The next GrantSpeak post will address my #4 Grant Writing Tip about pre-writing exercises.