Active Voice and Technical Writing

“What’s so great about using active voice?”

This is a common question I’m asked by students. Active voice is a sentence with an action verb where the subject of the sentence performs the action expressed by the verb. Active voice is clear and concise and active voice sentences are less wordy. To understand active voice, we need to think about passive voice.

In passive voice, the subject receives the action expressed by the verb.  For example, the man was bitten by the dog. The dog is acting upon the sentence subject (the man) meaning it uses the passive voice. What would be the active counterpart to this sentence? The dog bit the man. In this active voice sentence, the subject (dog) performs the action (bit) to the individual being acted upon (man).

Figure 1. Passive voice example

Examine the passive and the active sentences in Figures 1 and 2. The wordiness of the passive sentence is noticeable (21 words vs. 19 for the active sentence). Most readers of technical documents read quickly, skimming over the material or scanning it to find exactly what they need. Longer sentences are more difficult to skim and scan. When a document user repeatedly rereads a technical document to understand its meaning, they will skip sections or potentially infer the wrong meaning. The result can lead to a negative and potentially dangerous misinterpretation of the information.

Figure 2. Active voice example

If you struggle with identifying passive voice, there are some quick tricks to look for passive voice. First, identify the subject of the sentence. Once you know the subject, determine if it is passive by asking yourself is the subject performing the action (of the verb)? Or is the subject the recipient of a verb’s action?

Are you looking for another way to recognize passive? Look for forms of to be (see figure 3). Check out this passive example: Action on the bill is being considered by the committee. A big clue in this sentence is the phrase is being.

Examine the passive example – Large chunks of asbestos-laden material will be removed from the facility on the second and third floors by asbestos abatement teams. The use of will be is a clue to look at that sentence further.

Figure 3. Writers tend to use to be verbs when writing with passive voice

There are instances where a tech writer may want to use passive voice. Use passive voice with care to be sure the writing is clear and concise. Try the following exercise. Find passive examples online. Then consider the answers to the following questions:

  • Did you understand what was said, or were things vague?
  • Was the use of passive voice understandable?
  • Should the writer reword the example(s)?

If you decide to use passive, test the document with several users to be sure your writing is clear, concise, and not misinterpreted. But remember, you should have a good reason for using passive voice in your writing.

Lu Kondor has worked as a technical writer for more than 20 years for major corporations. She has a Doctorate in Business Management and has worked in a large variety of organizations including entertainment, software, electric utility, manufacturing, oil and gas, chemical, and nuclear process industries. She is an adjunct lecturer in Advanced Technical Writing as well as Information Design for more than 14 years.

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