Finding Your Voice – part 2

By a delightfully serendipitous turn of events, numerous friends of mine from days past are presently in town. This is apparently entirely coincidental, but it’s great to be able to celebrate with them. It’s also quite exciting to have a little reunion of the research group I started this crazy journey with. It was these two delightful people with whom I was having a little discussion earlier this evening about writing styles.

So this conversation ended up being about that age old bone of academic contention – whether, when writing, you should favour the active voice or the passive voice. It’s interesting that many academics are staunchly divided on their opinions about these two writing styles. Interesting and potentially rather irksome.

It is frequently felt that the passive voice is the preferable way in which to present scientific writing, and advocates of it believe it to be the best way in which to remain subjective when discussing such work. However, as can also be seen from the style in which this paragraph is written, it can feel dry, aloof and somewhat distant. Passive voice writing styles may end up being unnecessarily convoluted and even rather tiresome to read.

Active voice, on the other hand, is what I’m much more familiar with. You probably are too. Any decent blog on the internet is written in active voice. It’s personal and shows opinion and actual thought processes. Interestingly, there are a lot of active voice aficionados out there, who deride and abhor passive voice as a writing style.

The trouble is that in my opinion, they both have their own pros and cons. Sometimes, the active voice is the best way to present something – particularly if you want to stress some point, or highlight what your intentions are in writing. The way I’m writing this entry to show that both styles are valid.

On the other hand, passive voice can be well used when it would get too tiresome to point out the specifics. In fact, it has been pointed out repeatedly that passive voice can enhance the flow of a good passage of writing by not repeatedly needing to state who did what. By focussing on the point of the text rather than who was involved, it prevents the reader getting bogged down with unnecessary details.

Honestly, I don’t prefer either particularly. I think the most important thing is probably to remember what you’re writing for. Both styles can be awkward and cumbersome when used poorly. As it was pointed out earlier, the writing style shouldn’t detract from what’s being written about. The moment a reader begins to concentrate more on the way something is written than what’s being written about, is the moment that you fail as a writer.

While I may still be learning how to find my voice, I think I can say with some certainty – making your work easy to read and follow should be the most important thing. Everything else is a secondary concern.

I’ll admit that this is actually what precipitated both this post and the last one, but it felt disjointed to post this first, and it felt too rambly to post these as one blog entry.

Taking the opportunity to practice my kanji. My handwriting is still terrible!

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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3 Responses to Finding Your Voice – part 2

  1. Ana says:

    I much prefer active. I feel like it engages with the audience more. Passive makes it seem like the work was done by some ethereal being conjured into the lab, completely disconnected from the scientists.

    “Lo and behold, on this day, the test tube was shaken and the petri dish was sown with spores, and laser was taken and shined on the beings that grew, and it was good.”

  2. Nita says:

    I have been taught to use active. But the woman in charge of the labs also makes us cite everything using something that I think she invented. I’m sure I’ll learn better citation methods in my real classes.

    • invaderxan says:

      Oh really? Very strange.

      I remember it being very weird the first time I was in chem labs where they specifically told us to use passive voice. Which seems really odd when describing experimental methods. “To 100 ml of water was added 5 mol of sodium acetate with stirring.” Really odd.

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