A passage of text, edited to remove passive voice

Write as I say, not as I do

Image: what every one of my Methods sections looks like after my passive voice search-and-destroy!

Heard_Scientist'sGuide cover I probably should have seen this coming, but ever since people found out I was working on a book on scientific writing, I get mistaken for a good writer.  I get asked for advice; I get asked to give writing workshops and teach writing courses; and people turn to my own papers looking for examples of excellent writing (and even for touches of humour and beauty).  You may find it odd, but all this has taken me somewhat aback.

I’m forced to admit that, actually, some of these expectations are reasonable enough.  If you can’t get writing advice or a writing course from someone who wrote a writing book, who on earth could you get it from?  But those looking to my own writing for examples of excellence will, I’m afraid, largely come away disappointed.  Those looking there for beauty will especially come away disappointed.  Here’s the thing: I’m really not a very good writer.  I’m adequate, and have become so only after many years of deliberate practice. I find writing difficult and time-consuming.  My first drafts are terrible, and after many rounds of revision I end up with papers that I think are pretty clear, but will never be assigned as models in scientific-writing courses*.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the fact that I’m not a naturally gifted writer probably makes my writing book, and my advice on writing, more useful rather than less.  I may not know how to make every writer better, but I know lots of ways I’ve made myself better over the years, and at least I can share those!  Not only that: I think it’s useful for early-career writers to understand that their struggles are normal and that many (most) of us more senior folks, who seem like reasonably successful writers, still struggle**.

It’s galling, though, for me to see in my own writing many of the faults I counsel against in my book.  Take the passive voice.  In the book I side with those who argue for writing Methods in the active (“I did this… I did that).  It’s shorter, more engaging, and really, more honest than the passive, and adopting this habit would improve our literature immensely***.  But like everyone else, I had the passive beaten into me as an undergraduate, and it’s a very hard habit to break.  So time after time, I read a draft I’ve written and find it positively dripping with timid passive-voice constructions.  Or worse, I don’t find it so, even though it is. My passive-voice passages, I guess, just sound to me like authentic scientific writing – even though my conscious brain argues as hard as anyone that we should ditch this relic of past attempts to sound objective rather than being so. I’ve learned that I have to do a special read-through of my Methods looking deliberately for passive voice (and nothing else).  I do the same thing for a few of my other bad habits, like excessive use of parentheticals.  (Please nobody count the parentheticals in this post).

I think, though, there’s an important message in my passive-laden drafts.  It’s this: it doesn’t matter what bad writing habits you retain, as long as you’re able to recognize them, so you can deal with them in revision.  Your early drafts are not a writing product, and you shouldn’t confuse them with such. They are a writing process, and if that process has some lumps and bumps, that’s perfectly OK. A professional writer (and we are all that) is a professional reviser – which explains why my writing book has several chapters specifically devoted to revision.

So: I titled this post poorly, perhaps. Write any way that works for you. Revise as I say and as I do.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) June 27, 2016


*^Except that my 1991 paper “The Centrifugal Theory of Species Diversity” was.  Years ago, it got assigned in a writing course at Ripon College for students to analyze as an example of a review paper.  But that paper was a joke.  Yep – the one time something of mine is assigned as an example of good writing, and it’s a paper I wrote as a joke.  Which of course I realize is exactly why it got assigned, and the only reason my writing ever will be. I can’t even… but you can read the paper here, if you like. It’s very short.

**^As do and did many of the writers you think of as Great Novelists.  Perhaps the canonical example was Gustave Flaubert, who wrote Madame Bovary and other classics but whose passion for finding “le seule mot juste” meant that he was, in his own words, “often truly tortured in writing the simplest phrase”.  And yet critics have written things like “Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring; it all begins again with him” (James Wood, 2008, How Fiction Works). If Flaubert could struggle to write and still have that kind of influence, there is hope for the rest of us.

***^Advice to use the active is often misunderstood as advice to use only the active.  In fact, there are roles for the passive voice: for example, occasional use makes text more readable by varying its rhythm. I do cover these in the book, but it’s not very often one has to suggest that a scientific writer use the passive more.

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11 thoughts on “Write as I say, not as I do

  1. Peter Apps

    I wonder if the trajectory of the move away from the passive voice will ever get as far as including who among the authors did what ? As in; “AB and CD chopped down trees and cut them into logs, EF checked for insects every three days and GH identified them”. Senior researchers who insist on having their names among the authors on the basis of having raised the funds would be embarassingly absent from the methods section, but would get their mention in the funding acknowledgements; “We are grateful for funding from the Tree Huggers foundation, raised by IJ.”

    Does the passive reflect a kind of idealized notion of science as a purely collaborative enterprise in which individual contributions are subsumed by the whole ? If it does, then does the collective “We….” reflect anything different ? If the trees were felled and cut into logs by people not on the authors list, then who is the “We……” – in these circumstances the passive voice might be more accurate.

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  2. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

    Those “who did what” sections are not uncommon, although not in as much detail as your example, and I think they’re for exactly the reason you suggest. But they are usually a footnote, rather than being incorporated into the Methods.

    Interesting point about who felled the trees and whether they’re on the author list. You are actually quite right – in the paper that example text would belong to, the trees were felled by paid technicians who are not on the author list. One could argue that “We felled 10 trees” is thus inaccurate and the passive voice would be more so. But I don’t think that when I read “we did X” in a paper I necessarily think the authors did every detail – paid lab techs are common and I bet that in a large fraction of molecular-biology papers (for example), no listed author ever held a pipettor! I think there’s an implicit “We caused 10 trees to be felled” (is that passive or active? Some kind of weird hybrid?)

    Thanks for commenting!

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    1. Peter Apps

      There’s a job here for a historian of science; Newton wrote in the first person “I made in a piece of Lead a small hole with a PIn…….. Through this Hole I let into my darkn’d chamber …..”, so when did the passive voice come into fashion ?, and why ?

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      1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

        Peter – some of that is covered in Daston and Galison’s book “Objectivity”. It was during the attempt to professionalize and depersonalize the practice and reporting of science, during (if I remember correctly) the late 19th century. This was in part a reaction against the “virtual witnessing” aimed at by early detailed accounts like Newton’s (see about virtual witnessing here https://scientistseessquirrel.wordpress.com/2015/02/27/reproducibility-your-methods-section-and-400-years-of-angst/). There’s a little bit about this objectivity-passive link buried in this post https://scientistseessquirrel.wordpress.com/2016/05/26/the-warship-vasa-and-argument-from-authority/, and more in my book https://scientistseessquirrel.wordpress.com/the-scientists-guide-to-writing/. Cheers!

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