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  • Writer's pictureRachel Robinson

Identifying and Eliminating Passive Language in Your Proposals

Let's talk about Active vs. Passive Voice for just a bit. The contrast might seem insignificant, but understanding and applying active voice structure can drastically improve the scoring of your CM/GC, Design-Build, or P3 proposal.

"A penguin walks into a bar..." OR "A bar was walked into by a penguin..."

Wait. What?

You might immediately notice a difference in how these two versions feel because they represent the difference between the active and passive voice in language.

  • Active voice is a grammatical structure where the sentence's subject performs the action denoted by the verb. ("Laura reviewed the plans".)

  • Passive voice places the sentence's subject as the recipient of the action. ("The plans were reviewed by Laura".)

Although passive voice is not grammatically incorrect, it creates barriers between your message and your readers:

  1. Indirect Structure: Passive voice tends to present information in an indirect manner. The actor, or the person or thing doing the action, comes after the verb or may not even be mentioned. This can make it harder for readers to understand who or what is performing the action.

  2. Increased Cognitive Load: Because the structure of passive sentences is less straightforward, understanding the meaning can require more cognitive effort from your reader. This can slow reading speed and comprehension, making the text more difficult to digest and frustrating to reviewers reading multiple submittals quickly.

  3. Less Engagement: Passive sentences can feel detached or impersonal, decreasing reader engagement.

  4. Lengthier Sentences: Passive sentences are often longer than their active counterparts. The additional words can make the sentence more complex and harder to follow.

To illustrate the transformation from passive to active voice, let's consider a recent paragraph we encountered:

"The project was constructed to improve capacity limitations and reduce weaving at the interchange by widening the existing freeway from 4 to 6 lane capacity, adding metered dual-ramp capacity for vehicles entering the freeway from the north and south." (39 words)

An active voice rephrasing might be:

"The construction team widened the existing freeway from 4 to 6 lanes and added dual-ramp metering for vehicles entering in both directions. Our work reduced capacity limitations and weaving at the interchange." (32 words)

We successfully conveyed the same information with 82% of the words. Extrapolate that across an entire proposal, and you will quickly see how active language can make your ideas and concepts easier for a reviewer to read, assess, and score.

Writing in an active voice helps readers naturally understand your concepts and meaning in three ways:

  1. Active language is clear and direct. The active voice arranges sentences to follow the natural English pattern of subject-verb-object, making it easier for readers to identify who did what. "The engineer calculated the load capacity of the bridge..." leaves no doubt about who calculated what.

  2. Active language is concise. Active sentences usually require fewer words than passive ones to express the same idea, making them more efficient. "The design team analyzed the phasing options..." is more direct and succinct than, "The phasing options were analyzed by the design team."

  3. Active language promotes engagement. Active sentences often feel more dynamic and direct, as if the action is happening in the present. This can help to engage the reader's attention, making the material feel more immediate and relevant.

Here are three tests you can use to identify passive language:

  1. Look for "by" Phrases: A common marker of the passive voice is the use of "by" to indicate the actor or doer. ("The EIR was read by our team...")

  2. Find the Verb: Does your subject perform the action? If not, your sentence is passive. ("Traffic management was performed...")

  3. Ask, "Who is doing the action?": If that answer is not immediately clear, your sentence is likely passive. ("A complex phasing plan was developed by our construction management team...")

You will become more adept at recognizing and revising passive sentences by regularly using these three tests, and the time spent in restructuring will result in clearer, more engaging writing and better scoring.

In summary, while both active and passive language may be used in narratives, active voice provides a clear advantage regarding clarity, efficiency, and engagement. Active voice provides the conciseness typically favored in technical writing, where complex ideas must be quickly conveyed and understood.

Remember, your goal as a proposer is not just to share information but to ensure the scoring committee understands it as you intended, with the lowest possible effort to do so. The active voice is a powerful tool for achieving that goal.

A penguin walks into a bar. He says to the bartender, "Hey, have you seen my brother?" The bartender replies, "I don't think so... what does he look like?"


Have a question about best practices in Design-Build, CM/GC, P3, or Best Value pursuits? Let us know!

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