Improve Writing Skills: Use Correct Voice


Many writers get hung up on active versus passive voice. Some believe passive voice is grammatically incorrect, while others think scientists must always write in passive voice. Neither is true. Both active voice and passive voice are correct; they’re simply appropriate for different styles of writing. Scientific writing has typically emphasized passive; however, active is also appropriate.

So when do you use each voice? Use active voice when you want to emphasize the doer of the action. For instance, when writing standard operating procedures , you must clearly outline the mandated procedures to comply with regulations and to keep workers safe. Commonly, these are written in active voice for quick comprehension. See the difference:

Active: (You) Sign each lock out on the Lockout/Tagout Sign Out Sheet.
Passive: The Lockout/Tagout Sign Out Sheet must be used to sign out each lock.  

On the other hand, many scientific journals and scholars prefer writing about science in the passive voice. Removing individuals from the documents underscores that the project is objective and replicable. In these cases, the result is more important than the subject performing the action.

Passive: “The alloys were heated to 120°C.”
Active: “Dr. Martine heated the alloys to 120°C.”

As in all aspects of technical, scientific, and business writing, the audience and purpose of the document dictate the choice of voice. Carefully consider who your readers are and what action you want them to take. This preparation will help you write better documents , whether in active or passive voice.

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