The Importance of the Active Voice

The backbone of technical writing is clarity. Providing a clear message to the reader is necessary to promote an effortless reading experience, which leads to a better understanding of the content. All technical documents strive for simple comprehension. The best way to achieve this is to write in the active voice and avoid the passive voice.

In most cases, the active voice means the subject of the sentence acts upon the verb. The passive voice means the subject of the sentence receives the verb’s action. In simpler terms, the verb is in the present tense in a sentence written in the active voice, and the verb is in the past tense in a sentence written in the passive voice.

Sentences written in the active voice are clear and more direct than those written in the passive voice because the sentence is centered around the most important verb, and that verb is in the present tense. Here is an example of a sentence in the passive voice:

  • The field is used to enter information.

In this sentence example, notice the verb used is past tense. The sentence tells the reader that the field is used, and more specifically, used in the past. Also, notice that the verb enter is in the sentence as well, and enter is a much stronger verb that carries a more concrete meaning. The goal is to center the sentence around the strongest verb, preferably having only one verb present.

Now look at the same sentence rewritten in the active voice:

  • Enter the information in the field.

In the example above, the writer fixed two problems – changing the sentence from past to present tense and removing the unnecessary verb (use). By deleting used, enter becomes the only verb in the sentence, and the sentence is written in the present tense. Therefore, this active voice example directs the reader on what they need to do in real-time.  

The passive voice is not always bad. There are some instances where the passive voice is needed, but overall, the active voice is much more reliable.

The active voice puts the reader in the center of the action, in the present tense, not in the past, which is extremely important when writing a user guide or instruction manual, for example. A user guide’s job is to guide a reader through a specific task in real-time, and the active voice accomplishes that job far better than the passive voice.