Why Do Technical Writers Write So Passively? How To Communicate Better In Technical Writing: Part I

Passive writing adds words and detaches the action from the recipient. For example, “The cat sat on the mat,” (written in the active voice) can be written in the passive voice: “The mat was seated upon by the cat.” 

In this passive voice example, we go from six words to eight, a 33% increase, and we focus on the stationary mat instead of the living animal. 

Engineers love the passive voice when they write technical reports:

“The report was written by the design team.” 

“New software was included in the project.” 

The active voice gives:

“The design team wrote the report.”

“The project included new software.”

So, why do engineers love the passive case? Engineers are interested in process. Their focus is on what happens to a something as a result of an action. Engineering is an active profession, and yet the writing is so passive. Given engineers do things, they tend to begin with the action.  They finish with the outcome. This demands the passive voice instead of the active voice. 

Some passive voice examples of how engineers tend to default to:

Passive voice: “The structural concrete was contaminated by a defective additive.” 

Active voice: “A defective additive contaminated the structural concrete.”

The emphasis on outcome also encourages inverting sentences:

Inverted sentence: “A passing metal object shows up as a change in the magnetic field when a small current runs through a looped cable.”

Correct sentence: “When a small current runs through a looped cable, a passing metal object shows up as a change in the magnetic field.”

So, engineers think first about a state, then an action, and last, an effect. If a lab test has water filling a tube, an engineer naturally thinks first of the tube, which is the recipient. Next comes the process, which is filling the tube with water. Last comes the effect, which is that the water fills the tube.

The passive voice and sentence inversion complicate by disconnecting subject from action. They add words making the text verbose.

For more on how to communicate better in technical writing, see Part II of this blog series.