In the beginning…

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In the beginning was the word… and it was so wrong. It was in the passive voice, so I had to rewrite it.

It had been written by a developer^H^H^H^H^H^H^H I mean, a developer wrote it. A lovely chap, and a brilliant software engineer – but more suited to writing code than documentation. His documentation was more notes than finished product, and that’s fine and to be expected. It’s my job to take these notes from developers and turn them into something easily digested by users. I’m a technical writer.

Passive is weak. Active is powerful. Empower your writing, and your readers, by using the active voice.

In a passive voice construction something is done to something. If an actor does make an appearance, it does so attached to the construction through a clause. For example: “It had been written” is a passive construction. The actor, in this case a developer, is indicated by the clause “by a developer“. However, the sentence is grammatically correct and complete without the presence of the actor: “It had been written“. Sounds very epic, doesn’t it? Which may be why it is a writing style favored by academia, and drilled into students in universities around the world.

A friend of mine, currently completing his doctorate in Psychology, explained to me that in the rarefied academic atmosphere he moves in the passive voice “is seen as being more objective” – a passive construction if ever I saw one. After some thought, I realized that the relative objectivity of the passive construction is illusory in nature. The passive voice is not objective, it merely obscures its subjectivity by omitting the subject.

This is a problem when you’re writing user documentation and the subject of your writing is the user.

Documentation needs to be served fresh, hot, and ready to eat, steaming on the plate. Nobody reads the manual until they need to, right? Frequently, when a user picks up the manual they are already facing a situation of overwhelming complexity. If they have to then chew the documentation until it’s digestible, they are going to get indigestion before they can satisfy their intellectual hunger, or maybe they’ll starve to death first (am I taking this metaphor too far?). The likely result is that in the future they will eschew the manual.

The point is that without anchoring the user in the material by using the “strong language” of the active indicative voice (“after you do this” vs “after this is done“) readers can be lost at sea: “I was lost and confused before I picked up the manual, now I definitely have no idea where I am“. The manual is a map; it is going to lead the user from their lost predicament to the other side of the woods – use the active voice to give them the reassuring message: “You are here.”

Remember: Active voice rocks.

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7 Responses to “In the beginning…”

  1. loquaciouslinguist Says:

    You’ve got a typo 😛

    (Sorry! I couldn’t help myself).

    L

  2. ryanlerch Says:

    oh.

    where is it?

    /me reads again

  3. lukeskywalker246 Says:

    ‘The actor, in this case a developer, is indicated by the clause: “by a developer“.’

    Oops!

  4. loquaciouslinguist Says:

    It got fixed in between my noticing it, and my signing up for a new account to point it out.

    Besides, I was really just being facetious, anyway 😛

    L

  5. anross Says:

    /me climbs on soapbox:
    Click “this” and then you click “this” and then ….

    And then you and then you… AGH

    • jwulf Says:

      I would rewrite something like that in the imperative:

      “To Achieve Z:
      Do A. Do B. Do C. When C completes, do D.”

      Let me know if it’s something I wrote, and I’ll rewrite it!

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