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Improve your insurance technical writing by removing passive voice

meetingWhat is passive voice and why should you avoid it in your insurance writing? No matter what you’re writing for the insurance industry, a blog, a technical report or a white paper designed for marketing your business, passive voice weakens your writing. Once you understand a little about passive voice, it becomes much easier to find and eliminate it in your own writing.

What is passive voice?

Passive voice sentence construction occurs when the subject of a sentence becomes the object of an action. I know, it’s a grammar thing, something we disliked in school. Here’s an example of passive voice.

Our underwriting team was defeated by the western region.

Passive sentence construction weakens your writer because, in a nutshell, no one takes responsibility for the action. Written actively, this sentence would read like this:

The western underwriting region defeated our sales team.

Ouch! That wording smarts a bit more, doesn’t it?

In passive voice, the subject of the sentence is acted upon.

The applicant was rejected by Tom due to his negative loss history.

In active voice, the subject of the sentence (Tom the underwriter) performs the action.

Tom rejected the applicant due to his recent negative loss history.

One easy way to fix this and many passive sentences is to put the actor, Tom, ahead of the verb, “rejected” in the sentence.

Tips to find passive voice

To find passive voice, look for verb forms like “to be,” like “is,” “are,” “were,” followed by what is known as a past particle, a verb typically ending in “ed.” To make things harder, not all forms of “to be” are passive, but it’s a good red flag.

Here are a few more examples.

The claims department’s closing ratio was reduced last month by a high number of flu-ridden adjusters.

Rewritten actively you might say something like this:

Absenteeism in the claims department from the flu reduced last month’s closing ratios.

Here’s another passive construction.

The marketing team’s attendance at RIMS was delayed by one day due to bad weather in Atlanta.

Rewritten actively, the sentence might read like this:

Due to bad weather in Atlanta, the marketing team arrived at RIMS one day late.

I know what you’re thinking: “This is too hard! It’s grammar! I have a solution for you, or rather Microsoft Office does. While grammar check in MS Word won’t catch every instance of passive voice, it does a darn good job.

Here’s the plan

First, ensure you turn on grammar check in Word. If you aren’t sure how, read this link. Just be sure when you click your Review tab on Word and you click the Spelling & Grammar tab, the box at the bottom marked “Check grammar” has a check mark in it. (Now, if I’d said “is clicked,” I would be using a passive construction and Word would not catch it.)

Next, run the Spelling & Grammar check on your entire document. If you are new at writing active voice (the opposite of passive voice and what we strive for), you will probably have a high percentage of passive voice in your document. You will find the percentage of passive voice instances on the final grammar check tab under Readability, Passive Sentences.

Finally, to narrow down the location of your passive writing, go paragraph by paragraph with Spelling and Grammar. Do this by highlighting one paragraph at a time. If necessary, highlight sentence by sentence. Find the offending sentence and reword it. As you move to active voice in all your documents, you’ll find your writing comes alive and your audience, whether or not they understand grammar mechanics, will appreciate your writing style much more.

I’m a technical person – Give me a number

What percentage of writing should be passive? Professional writers argue percentages, but I strive for no passive writing in my work. If you’re new to this concept, shoot for five percent passive, and then aim even lower as you learn.

But we write about insurance,” you may argue. “It’s technical and somewhat boring!” Experts argue that even highly technical writing should avoid the use of passive voice. Even though we’re writing about insurance, we should never bore our readers. Our writing should be clear, crisp, concise and active. This writing style engages the reader and helps to ensure he or she will tag along to the end of your writing, whether it’s a claim report, an underwriting manual or a insurance white paper designed to educate clients or consumers.

In conclusion

One of the problems of passive voice is that we may attempt to distance ourselves from our decisions with the use of passive voice. I recommend you step up and say it like it is – take responsibility by using active voice. After all, that’s what we do in the insurance industry – we make decisions.

Active voice bolsters your writing, helping to engage your reader every step of the sometimes technical way. With the help of Microsoft and a few simple tips, you can actively improve your writing.

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