Case in Point

Words on Writing and Editing by Joshua Yearsley

Editing

Passive Voice Is Your Friend (Really.)

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Passive voice is sometimes the only reason your readers don’t tear their hair out.

By Joshua Yearsley (@joshuayearsley)


Stop the presses. Or perhaps I should say “the presses were stopped” instead.

Passive voice is the perennial bogeyman of editors everywhere. It removes action! It confuses things! Once I saw an editor get so mad over it that he turned into the Incredible Hulk and wrecked a whole city block.

I’m not here to tell you that using active voice isn’t a best practice. It is. Converting a sentence to active voice (nine times out of ten) yields a clearer, more interesting read. However, here’s a salient example of how active voice can make readers fall asleep from boredom: the Experimental section of an academic paper.

Tell me this doesn’t hurt you to read:

We performed X-ray diffraction measurements on the samples to study the quality of their crystal structures. We used scanning electron microscopy to investigate their surface features. We used X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy to reveal their elemental compositions. We collected capacitance-voltage measurements to explore their electrical properties.

Sounds like a skipping record, right? Let’s flip this paragraph around to passive voice:

X-ray diffraction measurements were performed on the samples to study the quality of their crystal structures. Scanning electron microscopy was used to investigate their surface features. X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy was used to reveal their elemental compositions. Capacitance-voltage measurements were collected to explore their electrical properties.

A breath of fresh air, right? Now each sentence begins with the technique of interest and ends with the information gleaned. There’s no record-skipping badness, and no extra words to boot! Besides, how active and interesting can you make an Experimental section, anyway? Let me give it a shot.

We vexed the lithium with a beam of indefatigable electrons, focused by a series of electromagnets strong enough to strangle an elephant!

Better?

Flickr image by adwriter, CC BY-NC 2.0

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2 comments

  1. Hossein - August 16, 2013 8:43 pm

    A good tip for writing better, Thanks!

    Reply
  2. Pingback: In Defense of Adverbs

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