Case in Point

Words on Writing and Editing by Joshua Yearsley


Passive Voice Is Your Friend (Really.)


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!


Flickr image by adwriter, CC BY-NC 2.0



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

    A good tip for writing better, Thanks!

  2. Pingback: In Defense of Adverbs

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