Why Should I Use Active Voice Again?

Why Should I Use Active Voice Again?

Every teacher you had in school admonished you: “Use active voice! Eliminate ‘to be’ verbs!”

And so we did. And most of us continue to try to keep it out of our technical documents to this day. But have you ever really asked yourself, “why?”

In school, the practice forced us to expand our vocabularies: to show, rather than tell. “The house was painted blue” tells only part of the story. “The workers scurried over the surface of the house, painting it blue,” provides much more information. And sets the sentence in time: the time of the painting, rather than after the painting occurred.

But do we need this kind of thing in our technical communication? Like so many other things, it depends. “Check to make sure the toggle light is green,” makes the point much more clearly and succinctly than “check that the toggle light glows green.” The word “glows” may be more technically accurate, but really, what we want the user to do is “CHECK the color of the toggle light.” If you have the space, “Check the color of the toggle light. It should be green,” may be a better option. Yet it STILL uses that pesky “to be” verb.

I argue that lyricality has no real place in technical documents, no matter how poetic and relaxing Star Trek’s Mr. Scott found them. (If you’re not familiar, he’s the Engineering officer known for reading tech docs while on vacation, much to his Captain’s dismay.) Keep your writing clear. Keep it active. But don’t fear the occasional “to be” construction.

2 Responses to Why Should I Use Active Voice Again?

  1. Allowing the occasional passive voice can be liberating. I’m sometimes tied myself in knots trying to avoid the passive voice. I’ll retain the flowery phrases for short poetry.

  2. Most definitely an issue. The key is, as in so much in writing… knowing when and where to use it. :)