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Ask Dr. Editor

Using the active voice strategically

How and where to edit for active voice constructions in your academic writing.

BY LETITIA HENVILLE | OCT 16 2020

Question

I want to use the active voice more in my manuscripts, but it’s not how I naturally write. Any advice?

– Anonymous (Biology)

Dr. Editor’s response:

Active voice sentences are shorter and clearer than passive voice ones.

When you write in the passive voice, the person who is doing the action is removed from the story you’re telling. Think of the difference between these two (fictional) newspaper headlines:

  1. Funding for Scientific Research Cut (passive voice, five words)
  2. Trudeau Cuts Scientific Research Funding (active voice, five words)

The second sentence tells us more about the person who has cut the funding – it tells a more complete story – while using the same number of words. Editors like me are fans of the active voice because we find it is usually clearer and more efficient than the passive voice.

When to use the active voice

The most complete answer to your question, dear letter-writer: use the active voice when it matters who should be doing a particular action. So, for example, use the active voice when:

  • clarifying on a grant application what your role in a team was or will be;
  • emphasizing in your conclusion who should be responsible for implementing a change your research is calling for; or
  • distinguishing between different interpretations of a set of evidence in a literature review.

If you’re editing an 8,000-word article, though, it’s hard to make a judgment call in every sentence as to whether it matters who is doing a particular action.

As you become accustomed to editing for active voice constructions, one area where I suggest focusing your attention is in the topic sentences of your paragraphs. Ideally, your topic sentences should be analytical, and should articulate the argument that will be supported by the evidence contained within the paragraph.

Topic sentences occupy prime real estate in your articles: because of their surrounding white space, a reader’s eyes are drawn to the beginnings and endings of paragraphs. If someone is skimming your article, you’ll want that quick reader to take in your ideas, not some summary of someone else’s points. It’s worth your time to go through your topic sentences — especially in your introduction, discussion, and results — to ensure that these sentences are in the active voice, and that they articulate your original contributions to the field.

But to focus on topic sentences exclusively is to wield a blunt instrument. Ultimately, it’s to your benefit to shift into active voice when clarifying your original contributions to knowledge.

Active and passive voice at work

Let’s look at one example of a journal article that demonstrates effective strategic use of active voice constructions. I’m a fan of the strategic use of active and passive voice in Li et al.’s “Biomimetic shark skin: design, fabrication and hydrodynamic function” (2014).

Skim the first few paragraphs of this article, and you will see passive voice constructions galore:

  • “These denticles are composed of…”
  • “The denticles are sculpted …”
  • “flat plates […] were held …”
  • “flexible pieces of real shark skin […] were moved …“
  • “flexible skin membranes […] were allowed …“
  • “The structure of shark skin denticles […] has attracted considerable interest …”

In these early paragraphs, the authors are describing facts – what shark skin is like — and articulating the significance of their topic to a range of related fields.

As the writers move into a discussion of their novel contribution to knowledge, they also move into the active voice:

  • “In this paper, we describe our approach …”
  • “We present measurements …”
  • “We then dynamically moved …”
  • “We investigated how …”

By using a “we did X” active voice sentence structure instead of an “X was done” passive voice sentence structure, the authors clarify what new work they have contributed to the field of experimental biology. It’s clear what they have done (active voice), which is different from what has been done (passive voice) before.

In the methods section, the authors shift back into dominantly passive voice constructions:

  • “A freshly dead specimen […] was obtained …”
  • “An area of skin ~10cm2 was extracted”
  • “The reconstructed denticle model was duplicated …”

When describing the steps they took to create their 3D-printed shark skin, the authors know that the object their describing — the dead shark; the selection of its skin — is more important than the person who obtained the shark or did the skin-extracting. In these instances, the authors use passive voice effectively because these objects are the focus of our attention.

If I had edited Li et al.’s paper, I would’ve suggested a final shift back into the active voice in the results section and concluding paragraphs, which I didn’t see in their paper. Nonetheless, their paper makes clear how their work advances the field and who was involved in bringing about such advancement — and they use the active voice to help bring about this clarity.

How to identify the passive voice in your own writing

There are a few different tricks to identify passive constructions, but the easiest way to quickly identify these sentences in your own writing is to cut and paste your work into the website hemingwayapp.com.

Hemingway App will highlight in green the passive voice constructions in your writing, giving you the opportunity to quickly see where you’ve used the passive voice, and where you might wish to switch to active voice.

If you see clusters of green in your methods, or as you set up your topic, that’s fine — but if green highlighting abounds in topic sentences or in sentences in which you are telling us what you’ve done differently from anyone else, then make the edit to shift into active voice constructions.

ABOUT LETITIA HENVILLE
Letitia Henville
Ask Dr. Editor is a monthly column by Letitia Henville, a freelance academic editor at shortishard.ca. She earned her PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto. Have a question about academic writing or editing? Send it to her at shortishard.ca/contact or on Twitter @lertitia.
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