RE: Taking active vs. passive voice too far

Subject: RE: Taking active vs. passive voice too far
From: "McLauchlan, Kevin" <Kevin -dot- McLauchlan -at- safenet-inc -dot- com>
To: Chris Despopoulos <despopoulos_chriss -at- yahoo -dot- com>, "techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 10 Jul 2013 11:41:06 -0400

I was taking literally the observation that failure to specify the precise origin of a message, which could be expressed in passive form, is a sign of laziness on the part of the techwriter.
I'm asserting that there are plenty of other legitimate reasons, and some of them apply to me.

Basically, I'm saying "Hey, I _don't_ resemble that remark."

Ahem.

But really, "a message appears", or "the sun rises", etc. Are not passive constructions. There is an explicit actor.
"Mistakes were made....", on the other hand, is classic bureaucratese, from someone who wants to say "mistakes made themselves without help from anyone", but who doesn't quite dare to do it ....

I have only rarely found a use for "A message can be seen..."
I have suggested that certain tools and information and such "can be found at..." when indicating that there are generic public sources that we don't control.

-kevin (who uses very few passive constructions in his technical writing)

From: Chris Despopoulos [mailto:despopoulos_chriss -at- yahoo -dot- com]
Sent: July-10-13 10:10 AM
To: McLauchlan, Kevin; techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com
Subject: Re: Taking active vs. passive voice too far

Well, I think you're taking the weak example I gave a bit too literally. The point is, to make an active statement you have to know the actor and the object of the action. Passive statements obscure that information. Providing that information empowers the reader (IMO), which is kind of what our business is all about -- empowering the reader. But... it's more work.


________________________________
From: "McLauchlan, Kevin" <Kevin -dot- McLauchlan -at- safenet-inc -dot- com<mailto:Kevin -dot- McLauchlan -at- safenet-inc -dot- com>>
To: Chris Despopoulos <despopoulos_chriss -at- yahoo -dot- com<mailto:despopoulos_chriss -at- yahoo -dot- com>>; "techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com<mailto:techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com<mailto:techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>>
Sent: Wednesday, July 10, 2013 9:58 AM
Subject: RE: Taking active vs. passive voice too far

In my experience, saying that a message might appear, without specifying the precise internal process that triggers it (assuming that only one process might be responsible in a complex application...) is a perfectly normal documentation choice when the customer has no business knowing the inner workings of the application. It might be proprietary "secret sauce", or it might be simply that they can't change the process (or it's outside their scope as users to do so), so they can only affect its inputs.

What might be useful to include, on the other hand, is to suggest real-world actions and situations that might precipitate the message, or describe a class (not necessarily in the restricted, programming sense of "class") of events such that the reader could determine if they are doing something that might cause the message. And then, if it's not obvious ("Doctor, it hurts when I do this." "Well, stop DOING that!!") what to do to avoid the message condition, then offer some suggestions... or the ever-popular "Contact Technical Support at...."

-----Original Message-----
From: Chris Despopoulos
Sent: July-10-13 4:50 AM
To: techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com<mailto:techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Subject: RE: Taking active vs. passive voice too far

I agree with the previous comments -- Turning your statement into an active one is a good idea. I want to point out that there's more to active voice than setting up a construct that begins with "To do X", and that directly tells the reader what to do. Active voice compresses more information into fewer words. A full active statement should identify the actor and the object of the action. For example, the passive "An alert message displays" only identifies an object. The active construct, "The foo process displays an alert message" gives more information... Exactly which process warns for the error state. The active example is longer than the passive one, but it conveys more information.


To make a fully active statement, you often have to dig in and find out exactly who or what is performing the action -- not always apparent. And you often have to find out more details about what causes the actor to spring into action. This isn't always easy. In my experience, much of the passive voice that I've seen comes from the writer not doing the extra work, for whatever reason (habit, assumptions, laziness, etc.). As you go through this exercise, you will probably find instances of this kind. More than anything else, you should try to fix those -- you'll know more about the product as a result. And as a result you will be in a position to add more value to the team.

cud



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References:
RE: Taking active vs. passive voice too far: From: Chris Despopoulos
RE: Taking active vs. passive voice too far: From: McLauchlan, Kevin
Re: Taking active vs. passive voice too far: From: Chris Despopoulos

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