Stop Sabotaging Your Proposals: How to Write In the Active Voice

TODAY’S GOAL: make your proposal text alive and active, rather than passive and mushy.

Selection Team members often receive 15+ (sometimes as many as 100!) proposals to evaluate. You want your proposal to stay in their hands as long as possible. If it’s interesting and easy to read, your chance of winning a contract increases.

We AEC technical professionals LOVE to overwrite...and this is a major problem. We subconsciously make sentences longer and more verbose, creating proposals written mainly in the passive voice. Your competitors want you to keep writing in a passive voice because it gives them an advantage. 

“Think about it, would you want to hire someone who is active or someone who is passive? The language in your proposal can create either impression…” (Gary Coover)


Stop sabotaging your proposals. It's time to learn the active voice.


THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG: what is active voice?

Here are simple examples that clearly show the difference between passive and active voices: 


  • Our drainage team redesigned the inlets.


  • The inlets were redesigned by our drainage team.
  • The inlets had been redesigned by our drainage team.
  • The inlets will be redesigned by our drainage team.
  • The inlets will have been redesigned by our drainage team.
  • The inlets are being redesigned by our drainage team.

THE REAL PROBLEM: why do we lean towards passive voice?

Here are three key reasons:

  1. We (incorrectly) think longer sentences make us sound smarter.
  2. Someone said we have to fill 3 pages of text, yet we can only think of 2/3-page worth of words to describe our work.
  3. We forgot how to write in the active voice.

Good news…writing in the active voice will shorten your sentences, making them easier to read and leaving room for much-needed white space and graphics.


 THE SOLUTION: use the active voice to increase wins

Grab your Trapper Keeper and hop in the time machine…we’re going back to elementary school! Here are 4 Steps to Increasing Active Voice in Proposals:


#1: Remind yourself about SUBJECTS, VERBS, and DIRECT OBJECTS.

In the example above,
SUBJECT = the person, place, thing, or idea that is doing something.
VERB = a word used to indicate an action
DIRECT OBJECT (D.O.) = recipients of the verb’s action.


#2: Follow this simple equation for active sentences: the subject comes before the verb.

Active sentence (simple and strong): Our drainage team (SUBJECT) redesigned (VERB) the inlets (D.O).

Passive sentence (weak and mushy): The inlets (D.O.) were redesigned (VERB) by our drainage team (SUBJECT).


Flip the passive sentence to create active voice!


#3: Conduct a simple word search for each of these words before you submit your next proposal draft.

When you find one, you’ve likely found a passive sentence. Work to eliminate these words:  are, was, were, has, have, had, be, being, been, would, should, could, may, might, and can.


#4: When you find a passive sentence, fix it. Make it active.




Benefit #1: Your firm now sounds like an active, go-getter type firm to the Selection Team

Writing in the active voice subconsciously conveys to the Selection Team that you:

  • Promptly solve problems
  • Communicate clearly
  • Stay on top of budget & schedule
  • Create success 


Benefit #2: You get back time in your proposal schedule

“Boy, I wish we could cut out float time during the proposal schedule. I love being on the critical path! It’s sooo great NOT having time to work on the important details ”…said no proposal writer EVER.

  • The more you proactively work on this, the less you’ll write passive sentences as time goes on.
  • Your reviewers will spend less time fixing passive voice, giving more time to actual content review.
  • It opens up time in the schedule to add great graphics, do an additional review, or rework a proposal section that needs extra help.




Two books inspired this post:

  • “The Elements of Style (Illustrated)” by Strunk & White, illustrated by Kalman. “The surest way to arouse and hold the reader’s attention is by being specific, definite, and concrete.”
  • “Secrets of the Selection Committee” by Gary R. Coover. “Think about it, would you want to hire someone who is active or someone who is passive? The language in your proposal can create either impression…”


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