Should you use active voice or passive voice?
Many aspiring technical and non-fiction writers struggle with the use of active voice vs. passive voice. After all, when we communicate orally with our friends and family, we use passive voice all the time without even realizing. Passive voice works in oral communication because we’re often engaged enough in the conversation or subject matter for our brains to process it immediately.
But, when it comes to written communication, active voice is the preferred method. The simplicity of active voice keeps the reader engaged and is less likely to cause confusion.
First, a review of sentence structure.
A basic sentence structure is a subject noun and a verb, where the subject noun performs the action indicated by the verb.
When you look at a sentence, find the active verb. Then, ask yourself who or what is performing the action. That is the subject noun.
Read is the active verb. Who or what reads? He is the subject who is doing the reading.
In writing, active voice is a sentence in which the subject of the sentence directly performs the action. Therefore “he reads,” is a basic active voice sentence, because the subject “he” is the one directly performing the action “reads.”
Of course, most sentences aren’t basic. In addition to the subject and the verb, most sentences contain prepositions and/or objects. For example:
He reads books.
He (subject) reads (action verb) books (object of the action).
He reads in the park.
He (subject) reads (action verb) in the park (prepositional phrase).
He reads books in the park.
He (subject) reads (action verb) books (object) in the park (prepositional phrase).
These are all active voice sentences because the subject is directly performing the action on an object and/or in a prepositional circumstance.
Of course, in everyday oral conversation, we could jumble this sentence around in a few ways:
The books are being read in the park.
The books (object) are being read (action verb) in the park (preposition).
In this case, the action verb is still “read,” but the subject (the person reading the books) is implied. After all, the books are not reading themselves.
Active Voice in Written Communication
Let’s take all of this together to form an example of an active voice sentence one might read in technical documentation:
Only qualified technicians should perform the task.
An example of the same sentence in the passive voice:
The task should be performed only by qualified technicians.
In both cases, the action verb is “should,” and the subject of the verb (the who or what performing the action verb) is “technicians.” With an active voice sentence, we get to the point by placing the subject before its verb, and the sentence uses seven words. With passive voice, we not only have to pluck the subject out of the end of the sentence and apply it to the verb, but it also uses nine words.
In oral communication, our brains can process the passive version of this sentence. But in written communication, our brains take an extra split second to process it. This extra processing time, as small as it seems, adds up and reduces engagement as our brains become tired of it. This is especially important when the subject matter is important, but perhaps not personally interesting or engaging - like technical documentation. Every bit of engagement retention matters.
An active voice in written communication keeps things simple and as engaging as possible.
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