Technical Writing: Active vs. Passive Voice

This blog post explains the difference between Active Voice and Passive Voice. I also cover when to decide which is best to use depending on the situation.

Active Voice

An important aspect in Technical writing is highlighting who or what is performing an action. When Active Voice is used, the subject acts. The verb action of the sentence creates Active Voice.

  • Active example: Daphne wrote the technical blog post.
  • Active example: The web application includes a new programming language.
  • Active example: Incorporating accessibility during the design process ensures a better experience for users.

Active Voice is considered more concise, direct, easier for readers to understand, and is often the preferred choice for Technical writing.

Passive Voice

When Passive Voice is used, the subject is acted upon. The past participle of the verb is used to create Passive Voice.

  • Passive example: The technical blog post was written by Daphne.
  • Passive example: A new programming language was included in the web application.
  • Passive example: A better user experience was ensured by incorporating accessibility during the design process.

Depending on the situation, Passive Voice can be necessary. Diplomacy and neutrality are two effective tips for using Passive Voice to avoid accusing others in tense situations.

For example, instead of using this Active Voice sentence:

  • “The team members made costly mistakes.”

The previous sentence can be written in Passive Voice:

  • “Costly mistakes were made.”

Also when explaining something in which the reader is not actively involved in or when explaining a process, Passive Voice can be the more appropriate option. Anyone can be the performer of the action.

  • Passive example: Area strip mining is used in regions of flat to gently rolling terrain, like that found in the Midwest.
  • Passive example: Permaculture — the design of ecological systems — is used to sustain human communities and the natural environment.

Conclusion

With the majority of Technical writing, Active Voice is the dominant voice used.

When deciding between using Active or Passive Voice, ask the question: “Is it an advantage for the reader to know the performer of the action?”

If the answer is Yes, use Active Voice. If the answer is No, use Passive Voice.

-Daphne

Source: Alred, Gerald J., Charles T. Brusaw, and Walter . Oliu. 2012. Handbook of Technical Writing. New York: St. Martin’s Press.