Re: passive voice (was RE: Numbering paragraphs

Subject: Re: passive voice (was RE: Numbering paragraphs
From: Chris Despopoulos <despopoulos_chriss -at- yahoo -dot- com>
To: sphilip <philstokes03 -at- googlemail -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 22 Oct 2012 03:58:03 -0700 (PDT)

Well, I'll try not to spiral into an endless argument about this. I'll just say four things.Â

First, active voice, when describing a person's interaction with a system, provides more information per word. The simple example, "An alert is posted" says less than "The system posts an alert." To say as much in passive voice requires "An alert is posted by the system" That's almost a 30% increase in words.Â

Second, this argument was settled by research back in the 80's or 90's as far as I can recall. Simply put, people retain active statements better than passive ones. And no wonder, when you consider the increase in verbiage (read increased cognitive load), or alternative reduction of information, coupled with the indirection of the statement.Â

Third, when documenting software for users or developers, I believe I never *had* to use passive voice once. After I finally broke the habit, I may have used it on occasion, but could probably count those instances on one hand... And would probably regret them if I saw them today.Â

Finally, while there might indeed be situations in which passive voice is appropriate for tech doc, I maintain they are rarer than its use. In my specific corner of the tech writing world, much rarer. And no, I'm not talking about pure instruction here. (For another whopper of a flame war, I'll say that what we call procedural documentation is brain dead and we need to pull that plug now. But save it for another thread.) I'm talking about setting context, describing states and settings, and the like. *Especially* for that kind of writing, active voice is superior IMO. In my experience, a manual loaded with passive voice is the product of an inexperienced or lazy writer. When the person writes "An alert in posted", in my experience that person cannot answer the question "Who or what posts the alert?" This is usually because the person never bothered to ask the question. While the example is trivial, this is not a trivial issue. This
is about giving the reader a realistic understanding of the system so he/she can realistically think through situations you could never have documented. Most definitely, if you cannot answer that question, you have no business writing the statement at all. It's your job to know these things, and critically decide whether to share them with the reader. Defaulting to passive voice is too often just a way to sweep dust under the rug. This is my opinion, and arguing it will get us nowhere... I'll not change my opinion, and you'll not change yours.

So... We probably have to agree to disagree on this. I'll continue to red-line passive voice when I see it in review. If you're in love with passive voice, you'll probably never hire me.Â


I lied... I have one more thing to say. As a challenge, why not go back to your favorite passive passage, and see if you can name all the agents of the actions and states you describe? I bet it would take some effort on your part to do that. And so I'll ask you, don't you think the reader would have to put out the same effort (or more)? Why would you intentionally shift that cost over to the customer?

From: sphilip <philstokes03 -at- googlemail -dot- com>
To: Chris Despopoulos <despopoulos_chriss -at- yahoo -dot- com>
Cc: Milan DavidoviÄ <milan -dot- lists -at- gmail -dot- com>; "techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Sent: Sunday, October 21, 2012 11:16 PM
Subject: Re: passive voice (was RE: Numbering paragraphs

On 22 Oct 2012, at 02:52, Chris Despopoulos <despopoulos_chriss -at- yahoo -dot- com> wrote:

> Ok, let me try to be more precise... As a rule there's no place for passive voice in writing that instructs people in the use of complex systems.

I can agree with that insofar as its fairly trivial if one understands what active voice is. i.e., a construction for either describing or telling what the subject of a sentence is doing/will do/has done/should do. Obviously, if you are addressing the subject, you need to use active voice.

So the statement above really amounts to no more than: there's no place for passive voice in writing that requires active voice.

That's not to say there's no place for passive voice in technical writing, for the simple reason that not all technical writing - and not even all instructional writing - is only concerned with actually providing instructions. As we all know, there is context to be set for when instructions are to be followed, there are descriptions to be given so that the instructions can be carried out accurately, and there are explanations to be provided so that the user can learn when and if to follow the instructions in similar situations that cannot be covered in the writing (such as when the system has a wide, possibly indefinite, range of applications).

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Re: passive voice (was RE: Numbering paragraphs: From: Chris Despopoulos
Re: passive voice (was RE: Numbering paragraphs: From: Milan Davidović
Re: passive voice (was RE: Numbering paragraphs: From: Chris Despopoulos
Re: passive voice (was RE: Numbering paragraphs: From: sphilip

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