See how the active voice wins you your case

Today, I read a lawyer’s factum. By the third paragraph, I stopped reading it and started to count the sentences written in passive voice.

Like the kids in the classroom tallying the number of times the teacher performs a nervous tic, my brain switched off and looked for something else to do.  The writing style alone induced this autonomic response. The writer of the factum lost my attention simply by abusing the word “to be” in various tenses followed by a past participle. After my indulgence in pedantry, I had to re-read it and struggle to understand what it said. Just think how a cranky judge will read it the evening before a motion day.

Rewrite anything from the active to the passive voice (i.e., reverse edit).  You will see how every instance of the stylistic error increasingly frustrates the reader.  I’ve done this below to a sample paragraph from my article on teaching legal ethics.  The use of the active voice and the passive can make the difference between a legible paragraph and an illegible one. When it comes to persuasive writing, this may determine the difference between winning and losing.

Active Version:

Lawyers across Ontario are openly questioning the usefulness of the mandatory three-hour annual dose of ethical-professional continuing professional development (CPD). Their scepticism may not be unfounded. Ethics taught badly may not result in good behaviour, and indeed might encourage manipulation of the rules. Naysayers of the Law Society’s 3-hour requirement do not mean to say we should not be teaching professionalism and ethics. Rather, we must transform their scepticism into profession-wide interest in the way we teach this subject, both in law school and in CPD.

Passive Version:

The usefulness of the three-hour annual dose of ethical-professional continuing professional development (CPD) made compulsory by the Law Society is being openly questioned by lawyers whose practices are located in Ontario.  The scepticism held by these lawyers is possibly not unfounded. Good behaviour is not necessarily caused by badly taught ethics, and some might by encouraged by the such teaching to manipulate the rules. Naysayers of the Law Society’s 3-hour requirement are not heard to say professionalism and ethics are not to be taught. Rather, their scepticism must be transformed by us into a profession-wide interest in the way this subject is taught, both in law school and in CPD.

Remember, even the verb “to be” is most effective in the active voice.  (To be, or not to be…)

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