Active Voice Was Taught By Me

Back when I taught at Fancy Pants University, my writing courses were very popular (for reasons I have never completely figured out) with engineering students.  I loved teaching the engineers: they were funny, geeky, and had a different, more concrete way of looking at literature than humanities-focused students did. Yet the engineers (and the pre-med students and all the other STEM students) brought an annoying bad writing habit with them.  Every time I thought I had stamped it out, it would re-surface, like Jason from Crystal Lake, in someone’s essay, so deeply was this habit ingrained in their scientific psyches. I spent what felt like entire semesters trying to get the engineers to stop writing things like:

The imagery in the three poems was analyzed so that patterns across images could be detected.”

In ‘The Peasant’s Fart,’* bad smells are utilized to symbolize sinful and unclean living.

Because the myth of Alcyone and Ceyx is brought up before the dream sequence starts, the tragic love story genre is established.

“Mistakes were made.”

Yes, you guessed it, we are rushing headlong into active versus passive voice, and why (and how) in your writing, you should use active voice most of the time.

In case you need a refresher, verb voice describes the relationship between the subject of a sentence and the action of the sentence.  If the subject of the sentence is the actor, we say that the verb is in active voice. For example, in the sentence The pitcher threw the baseball, the pitcher, the subject of the sentence, is the one doing the throwing to the baseball, the object of the sentence.  By contrast, the subject of a sentence in passive voice is being acted upon.  In the sentence The ball was caught by the catcher, the ball isn’t doing the catching – the catcher is – but the ball is still the subject of the sentence.

The common wisdom from English teachers is that active verbs are stronger and clearer than passive ones, and this time, I’m on the side of the common wisdom.  More of your verbs should be active than passive. In all your writing.** No matter the genre.

Now, something I want to emphasize, probably several times, because I will not be accused of saying something I did not say: passive voice is not bad.

Do you hear me?  Passive voice is.  Not. Bad.  It’s not against the rules, and anyone who has told you it is against the rules was leading you astray.  There will be times in your writing when it’s better to use passive voice.  They will not be as common as the times that active voice will be preferable, but they will exist.  The key to recognizing when they exist is to understand the story that either an active or a passive verb tells.

An active verb tells a story about doing.  The pitcher threw the ball.  Anyone who has seen a baseball game can easily visualize both the actor and his action.  It creates a clear, easy, almost immediate image for the reader. Even when the writer complicates the image – for example, The pitcher released a wild submarine throw – the reader can still piece it together with relative ease, because the active verb does most of the work of image creation.

A passive verb tells a story about being done to.  Penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928.  In this story, we wish to emphasize the object over the actor.  Sometimes – it bears repeating – we want to do that.  Sometimes the actor is unknown (“My house was robbed last night”).  Sometimes the actor is irrelevant (“My daughter was baptized yesterday.”)  Sometimes we want to eliminate the actor entirely (“Words were exchanged.”)  These are all valid reasons, in circumstances where they make sense, to use the passive voice.

But a funny thing happens when you write several sentences in the passive voice.  Suppose the first sentence simply read Penicillin was discovered in 1928.  There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that sentence.  However, when your reader comes across it, a tiny question mark pops up over her head.  By whom?  it asks.  Your reader may or may not know that it was Alexander Fleming, but to placate the question mark, she will conjure up something to fill in the blank herself.  When she has to do this over and over, with more and more question marks popping up over incomplete images, it becomes tiring for her. She’s doing a lot of the work that you, the writer, the person responsible for communication, ought to be doing.

So that’s why we usually prefer active voice: it’s friendlier to the reader, and as the writer, you are here for the reader’s benefit.

That question of the reader’s benefit leads us into the thorny topic of science writing, the source of my troubles with my engineers.  The debate over whether scientific papers ought to be primarily in active or passive voice spans decades, and regardless of who’s in the majority, the passive voice crowd often seems to be in charge, at least when they teach it to students.  I’m not a scientist, so if you think that disqualifies my opinion on the matter, so be it. But science writing is still writing, and the fact that it’s about science doesn’t make it work differently from other writing.

The most common argument in favor of passive voice in scientific writing is that passive voice aids in objectivity and depersonalization by giving the author of a paper distance from his work.  Here’s an argument published in the prestigious science journal Nature on the matter back in 1996.  My favorite snippet from this article is the unanswered question “How many of the most memorable prose passages in English literature are written in the active voice?” (answer: most of them), but we’ll take Professor Leather’s argument on its merits.  He claims (or should we say “a claim is made”) that writing in the active voice “engenders possessiveness in the results and/or work. By engendering possessiveness an author risks adopting a biased and partisan stance.”

Being that he is a scientist, my first instinct is to demand his evidence, but we don’t even need to do that.  I get that he wants the focus of science to be science, and not the people who did the science. But he confuses the treatment of material and data with the treatment of writing.

Here we must ask: what the point is of writing down the process and results of an experiment?  It’s not the same as the point of doing the experiment in the first place.

If you are at the stage of writing the paper, the work is done.  The result exists. You either have or have not conducted a good, clean, controlled experiment.  How you write about it isn’t going to change that, and certainly isn’t going to change whether you feel a sense of pride and possession in your work.  So yes, of course scientists should strive to remove bias from their experiments, but by the time said scientists get around to writing about said experiments, it’s too late for that.

The purpose of writing down the process and results is to communicate what you did and how it happened, with clarity and precision, so that other people can understand your process and results and perhaps other scientists can attempt to replicate your work.  For this purpose, the rules of clear and elegant writing do not change. Active voice creates cleaner, more concise, more natural-sounding sentences than does passive voice, so if your goal is to communicate clearly – be it about quantum mechanics or what you had for breakfast this morning – you should use active voice more often than passive.

Here are two easy ways to activate your writing without falling into Professor Leather’s worry trap that you’ll make it all about you.

  1. The first-person plural.  “We” is a great word.  I love “we.” “We” is especially great for science writing because most science is done in collaborations.  Telling your audience that “we” did things keeps the focus off the individual human actors in a way that the first-person singular does not, and steers your audience ever-so-slightly towards thinking about the scientific method as the work of many minds and hands, not just the few famous ones they’ve all heard of.  “We” acknowledges everyone from the principal investigator down to the undergrad lab tech, and as a bonus, lets you write in the active voice more often and with more comfort! Hey, look, even Nature recommends you use “we”!
  2. Make objects into actors.  This is a distant second choice, because we’re talking about academic papers, not romantic poetry, and I’m told no one wants to see scientific papers full of personifications (“the cell cultures danced the Virginia reel in the petri dish”).  But you probably have a few passive clunkers you can clean up by giving one of your tools some agency. Compare “15 mL of blood was placed in the centrifuge and spun for 30 minutes” with “15 mL of blood spun in the centrifuge for 30 minutes” or “A centrifuge spun 15 mL of blood for 30 minutes.”  Either of the two active sentences improves upon the passive sentence, though I prefer the first, because it keeps the focus on the material being experimented upon.

I will close with one condensed tip for choosing your verbs: unless you have a good reason to write in the passive, default to the active.  I estimate that you will find yourself using at least 65 to 70 percent active verbs in most of what you write.  Spend time with your verbs if you aren’t doing so already. Choose them carefully. You will discover a shine and structure to your writing, like that of a well-designed machine, that you might not have seen there before.

* Yes, I taught a story called “The Peasant’s Fart.”  It was a fun class.

** Unless you’re writing highly stylized poetry that relies on passive voice for effect, but if you’re doing that, what are you still hanging around with me for?

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