Voice and tone are the elements of writing style that allow you to manage how your reader “hears” and understands what you are saying. Depending on the communication situation, you might want to create a sense of objectivity, authoritative distance, or make the information active and immediately accessible. You might want to present yourself as a formal, consummate professional or build a friendly rapport with your client.
Similar to evaluating the appropriate level of technicality for your audience, considering how your word and grammar choices affect your reader will give you better control over how well the information is understood.
It is important to know the difference between active and passive voice and when to use them. Both active and passive voice can be valid and correct, but, used inappropriately, they can lead to confusing and needlessly complex sentences.
In the active voice, the subject of the sentence is the actor—the main verb describes what the “doer” is doing. This is an efficient way to construct simple, direct sentences that communicate an action.
- She threw the ball.
- We wrote the lab report.
In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is the thing acted upon. It directs the reader’s attention to the thing that experienced the action (the verb) of the sentence.
- The ball was thrown.
- The lab report was written.
NOTE: The passive voice typically uses some form of the verb “to be” (is, was, were, had been, etc.).
There are perfectly sound reasons to use both “voices” in writing. There are cases when the actor (the “who”) is unknown, unimportant, or implied:
- The city was founded in 1806. (By whom? A lot of people. That’s not the point here—I’m focusing on the date.)
- My laptop was stolen! (By whom? I don’t know, obviously!)
There are also times when you might consciously choose to minimize the role of the actor:
- The deadline was missed. (I’d rather not say who’s to blame…)
- Part of the track was broken. (…due to circumstances out of our control, but that isn’t important to my reader.)
However, ineffective use of the passive voice can cause issues with concision and clarity in large part because it relies on “to be” instead of more precise action words—why say “The report was written by me” when you can say “I wrote the report”?
In scientific or technical writing, there is a common (but not universal) perception that personal pronouns can undermine the objectivity of the writer or distract from important information. This is one of the main reasons passive voice appears so frequently in scientific or technical writing—the focus is shifted away from the person doing the action.
In technical communication, where the focus is on conveying data and important information, it is common for writers to avoid using personal pronouns (I, you, he, she, we, etc.). This is one reason writers opt for the passive voice—saying “The wire was cut” rather than “I cut the wire.”
There is not a universal rule against personal pronouns in scientific writing. Different contexts and situations will require different approaches, so you must be aware and adaptable.
For FE and FEH, different assignments will require different tones:
- 3rd person preferred in Lab Reports, Lab Memos, Technical Reports, Progress Reports
- 1st and 2nd person preferred in Email, and potentially in writing for websites
To avoid first person, but still use active voice, use “the team,” “team members,” or “the group” rather than first person pronouns:
- Two team members analyzed the code. (Rather than “We analyzed…”)
- The team calculated the speed of the vehicle. (Rather than “We calculated…”)
The passive voice inherently requires more words than the active voice, but a concise, simple passive voice construction is still possible. Technical or scientific writing is prone to wordy, sluggish phrasing—what Lanham (2007) calls “Official Style” [cite]—caused in large part by inappropriate nominalizations, which are a result of misusing the passive voice.
Nominalization is turning a verb into a noun—essentially describing an action as a thing. For example:
Past tense verb: analyzed → We analyzed the results.
Noun: analysis → An analysis of the results was made.
Verb: to describe → The witness described the suspect to the police.
Noun: description → A description of the suspect was given to the police.
While nominalization might be grammatically correct, it can distract from the “real” action of the sentence by replacing the main verb with a form of “to be.” As with passive voice, writing with too many nominalizations creates sentences that are difficult to read and overly complex. This type of writing is more demanding for your reader and you will be more likely to lose their attention or understanding.
|Active Voice||Passive Voice||AVOID: Passive Voice with Nominalization|
|The team verified the contents of the lab kit.
(or “I verified…” in 1st person)
|The contents of the lab kit were verified.||A verification of the lab kit contents was carried out.|
|The team member removed the insulation with a wire stripper.
(or “I removed…” in 1st person)
|The insulation was removed with a wire stripper.||Removal of the insulation was completed using a wire stripper.|
Avoid emotional or qualitative language in technical documentation. Keep your reader’s focus on the measurable, verifiable information and the objective aspects of your decision-making, not personal or emotional responses.
For example, these types of phrases would not aid a reader’s ability to understand or verify the information and would be too “emotional” in tone:
- It worked beautifully.
- The result was terrible.
- We were thrilled.
Go here for more information about using precise language effectively.
Minimize overly casual language. Many of the things you say in casual conversation with your classmates do not belong in a Lab Report. You might know this, but it’s surprisingly easy during the writing process for those phrases to creep in… show up… no, appear. See?!
Here are some examples of language that would be too informal in a Lab Report:
- figured out, got it
- came up with
- bouncing off [ideas], thinking outside the box
- checked out, test out
- ran into
- messed up, screwed up, threw off
- hard (in the sense of “difficult”)
You might use this type of casual, conversational language strategically in specific situations (it could show personality in an email or even some types of presentations, for instance), but it does not usually have a place in formal technical writing or documentation.
- Writing can be technically correct yet still ineffective for communicating your message if the writing style is not appropriate.
- Use the passive voice when appropriate or strategic, but don’t allow it to affect the clarity and concision of your writing.
- Avoid unnecessary nominalizations—give preference to “real” verbs that describe the main action in a sentence rather than is/are/was/were.