Monday, February 29, 2016

Writing in Plain Language, Part 7: Active Voice

I have said plenty about active and passive voice in this blog, explaining that active is not necessarily passive, when active is preferable, and when passive is. I have even referred to Shakespeare to illustrate how effective passive voice can be.

But it's safe to say that active voice is more transparent to readers who are unfamiliar with the workings of a bureaucracy communicating with them. Here is an example of employment application instructions from a federal agency:

Passive: Once the application is received, it will be reviewed, and notification will be made of the decision.

Active: Human Resources will notify you of our decision on your application.

The passive voice sentence has three passive verbs: is received, will be reviewed, and will be made. It focuses more on process than results. Once the application is received is too obvious to mention. The same goes for it will be reviewed. If they will inform someone of the decision, then they must have reviewed the application. Then comes the problem of unknown doers and receivers. Who will review the application and who will they notify of the decision? The verb will be made makes those points unclear.

The active voice sentence focuses on results, which is what the reader wants to know. It also clarifies who are the doers (Human Resources) and receiver (you). For these reasons, active voice preferable.

Most businesses are by nature technical, convoluted, and confusing. Our job is to protect our readers from those ambiguities. That's why active voice helps writers to express their business in plain language.