Writing a Support Letter: Keep It Active — Active Voice and Action Verbs

Active language is far more likely to keep your readers engaged. When it comes to “active,” it means more than one thing. We should use active voice and action verbs.

Use active voice rather than passive voice.

In active voice sentences, the subject performs the action.

Esperanza prepared lunch.
The local government is considering this new bill.

In passive voice sentences, the subject is acted upon. (So instead of being before the verb, it’s buried in a prepositional phrase.)

Lunch was prepared by Esperanza.
This new bill is being considered by the local government.

Active voice:

  • emphasizes who performed the action
  • uses fewer words
  • is usually easier to understand than passive voice
  • clarifies the subject and object of a sentence (which helps you know who {subject} did what {verb} to whom{object})

Active voice will give you simpler, clearer sentences, and it is almost always preferred.

The few times that passive voice is better are when the agent performing the action is unknown, implied or unimportant.

  • Our new computers were stolen last week. (Unknown agent: the thief. Active voice: A thief stole our new computers last week.)
  • A young man was arrested yesterday as a suspect. (Implied agent: the police. Active voice: The police arrested a young man yesterday as a suspect.)
  • Our organization’s director was summoned by the prosecutor as a witness. (Unimportant agent: the prosecutor; more important: our organization’s director. Active voice: The prosecutor summoned our organization’s director as a witness.)

Here are a few other passive-voice phrases that like to sneak into our writing, but which you should avoid if possible:

  • “There are,” “There were,” “There is,” “There was”

There are a lot of people helping us tonight.
Better: A lot of people are helping us tonight.
Better still would be to give a number—remember the importance of detail: Over 100 people are helping us tonight.

  • “It is”

It is Tuesdays that are the hardest.
Better: Tuesdays are the hardest.
(Sometimes “it is” can be used for extra emphasis, like: “It is this kind of thinking that we must change.” But it will not stick out if you use “it is” all the time.)


Use colorful action verbs

Action verbs are not the same as active voice, which involves sentence construction. Action verbs are more about word choice.

There are three types of verbs:

  • Linking verbs are a form of “to be” that connects the subject to additional information about the subject (I am tired; she is the director of our organization)
  • State-of-being verbs communicate feelings or attitudes (feel, believe, hope)
  • Action verbs express what the subject does—the action the subject performs (laugh, jump, eat, fart)

Action verbs are the strongest, most compelling verbs. They will give you short, simple sentences.

Here are some examples of action verbs that are stronger than linking verbs:

You and I are different.
You and I differ.

In her summary, she wrote, “ … ”
She summarized, “ … ”

Made a suggestion

You can also cut out other words, like adverbs, by choosing the right action verb. You can use an adverb to describe how someone laughed (quietly, loudly, suddenly) or even an adjective to describe the kind of laugh (a cackling laugh). But what’s better is to let the right verb tell it instead (Mary cackled; Bob guffawed; snickered; giggled; chortled; chuckled). This cuts out unnecessary words, and simultaneously adds color to your writing.