Losing your voice

Losing your voice

In a couple weeks, I plan to spend some time with my students on writing lab reports.  Both in science and engineering, students spend a pretty significant amount of time writing reports (or they should!).

I decided this would be a part of my curriculum after remembering my experience teaching circuits labs the first time.  I was amazed at how many students had made it that far without having a good understanding of how to write a lab report.  I ended up spending a good chunk of lab time trying to teach this particular skill.

The reason I think this is important is not only for academic success but for success in a job.  As an engineer, you have to write a lot of reports.  Your superiors have to explain why they’re paying you, so you need to be able to justify your existence.

Education in this realm, however, has not really kept pace with how writing works in technical fields.

I remember writing up my first resume.  I wrote down the jobs I worked at and job duties. For instance, as a secretary, I wrote that I was “familiar with MSDS“.   A few years later, I was hearing things like, “Use activity words,” and, “Let them know what you DID.”  I had to revise my resume to say, “Developed and maintained an MSDS system to bring facility into compliance with state and federal regulations.”  (I wasn’t sure how it would go over if I added the bit about, “Helped supervisor to procure annoying miniature floofy dog for his mistress,” but I figured that wasn’t critical as it happened about the time I quit.  And you may have an inkling of why I quit…)

fluffy  destroyer of worlds

A few days ago, a coworker and I were discussing posters for a conference that we were writing up.  I made the comment that, in most of his writing, he used the passive voice (e.g. “A model was developed for the widget that can be varied 1.5 billion ways and run in 15 nanoseconds,” rather than, “Using our awesome skillz, we developed our own customizable model of the widget which has 1.5 billion variations and requires only nanoseconds to run.”).  He responded that he was taught to write technical work passively, so that it would sound like the first example.  I thought it might be discipline specific, but my other coworker in the same field as the first said he stopped doing it a long ago simply because it was so boring to read.

The first coworker is a decade younger than I am…and they’re still teaching this.

This reminded me of a discussion a couple years ago (forever in the blogosphere, I know) about use of first/third person and passive voice in academic writing.  The comments were great, especially coming from a variety of different fields.  I learned not only that I didn’t have to use passive voice and that first person pronouns were acceptable, but that there may also be good reason for using passive voice at other times, as well.  This is one of those times that reading blogs really opened my eyes to the diversity of approach and opinion out there.  And yes, a lot of people do think it’s more proper to use passive voice.

Rereading this commentary after my discussion with my coworker made me think heavily about teaching lab report writing to my engineering students.  One of the things I plan to discuss in detail is use of voice.  I really prefer active voice because, frankly, passive writing often equates to dry and boring reading. However, I am also going to discuss that the use of passive voice may sometimes be necessary and appropriate: the key is knowing when you’ve hit one of those circumstances.

In other words, I want my students to learn to take credit for their work and show that they did something.  Just like writing a resume, writing reports, whether they are lab reports for school or technical reports for your supervisor, should also convey one’s role in an effort, i.e., it should be clear who got the job done.  Unless, of course, it went badly, in which case even the best of us would hide behind passive constructions by saying, “Mistakes were made.”

Which voice were you taught to use?  Did you rebel against it? And how do you feel when you see someone utilizing your non-preferred style/voice?

21 comments

Yay, active voice for scientific writing!!!
I have this debate so much – I’m talking to you GEARS – active voice just makes the writing so much more interesting. Keep on pushing it Cherish!

shit, you beat me to it….

Active voice is total crap for tech writing. I hate to do this but

THE PAPER IS NOT ABOUT YOU! IT’S ABOUT THE WORK!

you should be independent of the quality of the work.

We’re getting a divorce.

way to have a marital fight on engineer blogs, Gears. And by the way, you’re wrong. Allow me to say it in a way you’ll understand: He was found to be wrong.

See what sounds stronger:
I proved him wrong.
or
He was found to be wrong.

Research does not exist in a vacuum. It is done by a person (or group). Using the passive voice says that the work floats freely in space and just assembled without any input from humans.

Cherish and I have a topic of discussion that resulted in similar strong opinions and opposing views. Ours goes something like this:

‘The magnetic field is H!’

‘NO, its B! See, its right here in Griffiths.’

‘Griffiths is a dweeb. Look in Harrington – he knows what he’s talking about!’

And on and on and on….

I’m going to disagree with you on this. Students (especially those going in to research fields) should learn to write in the passive voice. Active, first person should only be used when describing the results.

For example:
“We demonstrate an accurate positioning system capable of six degree of freedom motions with an on-board espresso machine.”

Other than context, passive voice should not be used. The point of research and academic publications is to present your work, independent of the researcher. Yes, we know you’re superawesomesauce because you had the idea, but that’s why you’re first author. If anyone else were to duplicate your work, they should be able to do it because the fundamentals are correct and not because you have magic voodoo. If you’re the only one that can do it, either you’re not giving enough information for others to duplicate it or something is wrong with your fundamentals.

I find it very arrogant and annoying when I read papers written in the first person because it screams “look at teh skillz’. I’m more likely to think that researcher is highly arrogant and not someone I want to work with as well.

FYI, DrWife writes in active voice, almost to the detriment of our marriage. Everything she proofreads of mine, she wants to change to active voice (and vice versa).

Resumes are supposed to showcase a person’s work. Thus, active voice should be used.

In a general sense, using something like “mistakes were made” is a joke and those words should never be used in conjunction with research work. That’s a politician’s statement after infidelity or something of that sort.

I strongly suggest you read the link which talks about when it is and is not appropriate to use passive voice. I’m not saying never use it, but passive voice should not be used as much as it is.

imo, the usual issue isn’t that passive voice is always badbadbad, but that people are bad at writing in passive voice. It makes sense, because we use ‘active’ language in everyday speech, so switching over to passive is hard and often results in clunky language. The rule should be to use whichever voice gets your thoughts across most clearly and effectively.

I empahasize passive voice for my lab class not because I really perferit, but they need to learn how to write in either voice. In K-12, students are very likely to have been taught active voice. However, theymay at some point be asked to write a technical paper in 3rd person passive voice, so they need to learn how it works. My job isn’t to declare one better than the other, it’s to teach students the one they don’t really know.

Basically, I agree with Her Hermitage, with the caveat that I try and teach students how to do unclunky passive voice.

I love a good language fight on an engineering blog, especially one about style. Perhaps we should move on to discussing one or two spaces after a period. Or how engineers prefer periods over semicolons. And how sentences should never start with ‘or’ or ‘and’.

In general I agree with GEARS to a point as follows:

A technical paper is just that, a technical report of the processes and results that were found. This is unfortunately as black and white as that. There should be no ‘we’ or ‘I’ or any touchy feely words as its about pure fact.

However this is about a person or group so some option is required. This should however be restricted to the front and back in general terms of the document. You can discuss and have an option in the introduction, that’s fine but not in methods and results. Results should only be that and not have an option, these are raw facts, x=n for example. However after your results you should have a section to review your findings. This is where you can be all touchy feely again as well as in your conclusion.

With reference to the example “I proved him wrong” then this is too far and sounds arrogant. We are technical people with reasoning and we understand that and other views may differ. but people have emotion and this invokes a emotional response that the reader cannot predict and one that could be positive or negative. It would however be better to say that you have proven Mr X’s theory to be floored, his methods or results, not him personally.

For correct document structure and style I use this book>

Reference: Writing for Science and Engineering (papers, presentations and reports) By Heather Silyn-Roberts ISBN 0-7506-4636-5

I use passive voice describing an experiment except in cases where it seems awkward. I also avoid it when describing mistakes because I feel like readers are on alert for the passive voice blame-avoiding when reading about something that went pear shaped; no one is fooled by “mistakes were made”.

There is the issue of evolution of “accepted style.”
I have heard several people say that active voice is simply more modern in technical writing (papers, proposals). It used to be passive voice everywhere, all the time. It seems that the acceptable style has moved away from dry and matter-of-fact to more fluid and conversational. Why that happened is anyone’s guess, but I think it has to do with more showmanship needed nowadays from scientists and engineers, emphasis on accessibility of work to the broader community, also greater necessity to pitch ideas for funding and whatnot… Passive voice is being frowned upon as somewhat archaic, so even though there is nothing wrong with it, it now has a bad rep so it’s best avoided.

I agree that a lot of this has shifted because of the need to emphasize one’s own work. I’ve also heard a lot of people talk about how science is activity and doing things, and when we write and talk to the public with a lot of passive structures and conditions on what we’re saying, it gives the public a very bad impression, especially with all the misconceptions and demonizing of science and engineering that occurs already.

And in contrast to comments above, I don’t find active voice inherently arrogant. Saying, “We developed an antenna for an RFID tag that operates on metal with a low profile,” is a statement of fact. The sentence states who did it and what they did. Saying, “We developed a novel RFID tag antenna for operation on metal that has a considerably lower profile than all other tags available on the market,” is most definitely arrogant (even if true). But you can rewrite things in the passive to sound arrogant. “A novel on-metal RFID tag antenna with a lower profile than commercially available tags was developed.” Both of these latter sentences make a lot of claims about the importance of such a development, which may or may not be valid and is very subjective. Stating what you did is not arrogant or biased…and it’s certainly possible to be arrogant in the passive voice.

And I think GEARS is having trouble adapting. 😀

I *hate* passive voice, or at least its over-use in scientific writing. I concede that it has it’s place.

As a test of my advisor’s style, I wrote my master’s thesis proposal in active voice. He changed everything to passive and I heaved a sigh of resignation. Okay, I’ll write in passive voice for the next several years, though it may suck out my soul and grind it into the keyboard.

In order to dodge such a sentence, I’m dabbling (or a bit more) in journalism. Weeee!

I taught a tech writing class for engineers for 14 years, and I can assure you that almost no students need to be taught to use passive. They need to be broken of the habit, and quickly. Removing passive does not mean inserting “we” everywhere. To take an example from the above, you can leave out the developers by saying, “The novel on-metal RFID tag antenna has a lower profile than commercially available tags.” This construction brings the important noun phrase to the subject position, but in a more straightforward way than using passive.

One important point: in a thesis (senior, MS, or PhD) it is essential to use “I” and not “we” (unless you have an explicit antecedent for “we” earlier in the paragraph). A thesis is about establishing the research skills of an individual and must be crystal clear about that individual’s contribution.

“We” is not a formal form of “I” and should only be used when there are multiple authors, when “you and I” is meant, or when there is an explicit antecedent. “I proved him wrong” is arrogant—”we can prove him wrong” would be ok only if “you and I can do this together”—it would still be arrogant if “we, the multiple authors, can …” were the intended meaning.

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