On teaching writing, and being overruled: a passive-(voice)-aggressive rant

So, I’m teaching my course in Scientific Writing, and I’m frustrated by something I didn’t see coming.  I teach students to write in the active voice (“I measured photosynthesis”, not “Photosynthesis was measured”).  That’s the modern best practice in scientific writing – not to use the active all the time, but to prefer it unless there’s a specific reason for using the passive in a specific sentence.  But the way the course is structured, I’m running into conflict with my departmental colleagues.  Through the semester, I have my students turn in drafts of whatever writing project they’re already working on – usually an Honours thesis or one chapter of a graduate thesis.  The first assignment is a draft Methods section.  And here’s how things go, for something like a quarter of the class:

    1. In class, I recommend writing in the active voice.
    2. For our first Assignment, student drafts a Methods section, in the active voice.
    3. Student shows the draft to their Honours or graduate supervisor.
    4. Supervisor crosses out all the active voice and explains – incorrectly – that scientific writing has to be in the passive.
    5. Student revises into the passive, then submits the assignment to me.
    6. I grade the assignment, penalizing the use of the passive.
    7. Student is upset.

What makes this most remarkable, I think, is that most students sign up for the course at the urging of their supervisors – the very supervisors who then overrule what I teach!*

I teach some entomology too, and population biology, and biostatistics.  I don’t think I’ve ever had a student whose supervisor has insisted that flies actually have two pairs of wings, no matter what they’ve been taught in Entomology; that logistic growth doesn’t actually asymptote to K, no matter what they’ve been taught in Population Biology; or that the critical value for a 1-way ANOVA with 2 and 6 degrees of freedom is 9.43 and not 5.14, no matter what they’ve been taught in Biostatistics.  Writing is different, I’ll admit – there are few writing issues on which someone can be as wrong as thinking logistic growth doesn’t asymptote to K.  But there are some, and avoiding the active voice is one of them.  I keep coming back to this: if you think it’s worth having your students take a writing course, why do you think they should ignore what’s taught in that course?

I’ve been a little bit stuck on what to do about this.  If I teach active voice, I’m penalizing students who listen to their supervisors’ advice**.  If I teach passive voice, I’m penalizing students who would do better to write according to modern best practices.  I’ve come up with two potential solutions, though (and I’d like to hear your reaction to them in the Replies).

(1) What I’ve done so far:  I use this instructor-supervisor conflict as a teaching opportunity.  This won’t be the last time that one of my students will need to navigate dissent about how to write.  They may have two coauthors disagreeing; they may have two peer reviewers disagreeing; they may even have a single peer reviewer telling them to do two incompatible things (“add these three analyses, cite these 27 additional references, and also shorten your manuscript”).  I tell them that it’s their writing, not their supervisors’, and that they can discuss with their supervisor why they don’t want to heed a suggestion (and can do the same with me).  This doesn’t reduce the awkwardness for them, though.  It may even increase the awkwardness, although it does harness it to good educational end.

(2) What I think I’ll do next year: I’ll try to head this one off at the pass.  Other issues can be examples of resolving writing-team conflict; but the exclusive use of the passive voice needs to die the death that is so richly deserved by it***.  So I’ve written a short letter, which I’ll send to the graduate or Honours supervisor of each student at the beginning of the semester.  Here it is:

Dear Faculty Supervisor,

Your student is taking my course, Biology 4643/6463: Scientific Writing.  In that course, I teach modern best practices for scientific writing, including the use of the active voice.  (That doesn’t mean using only the active voice, but it means using the active voice unless there is a technical justification for using the passive in a particular sentence.  If you’d like to read some recommendations on the use of the active, you can see The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, pp. 164-166 (my book, and the course text); or Schimel’s Writing Science, pp. 134-136; or Greene’s Writing Science in Plain English, pp. 22-28).

 Your student will be submitting parts of their draft Honours thesis, graduate thesis, or scientific paper as assignments in Biology 4463.  They will be graded on their adoption of best practices, including the use of the active voice.  If you prefer that they use the older, passive style when they submit their work to you (or to their committee), you can certainly request that of them.  However, please wait and ask them to revise that way after grading for the course is complete.  (Keep in mind that they may well be asked to revise again, back into the active, during peer review for publication.)


Steve Heard

Instructor, Bio 4643/6463

I don’t know if this will work, but maybe it will take the heat off the student and put it on me, where it belongs.  What do you think – should I dial it up a notch and work in some kind of snarky reference to fly wing counts and logistic growth?  Or am I correct in suspecting that I should save that kind of thing for blog posts?

© Stephen Heard  March 5, 2019

*^It isn’t just the passive voice on which I get overruled, and there’s some variation among cases.  Sometimes, supervisors disagree with me about issues that don’t have a clearly “correct” side.  For example, last year I had students turn in Discussion drafts before Introduction drafts, because I think that’s the better order in which to write.  That one went over like a lead balloon, with supervisors still insisting on seeing their students’ Introductions first – forcing them to write both at once.  And I have to admit, Introduction-first isn’t wrong, it just isn’t my preference.  So I’ve retreated, and this year students can choose either Introduction-first or Discussion-first.  But in 2019, writing exclusively in the passive voice is objectively wrong (despite the desperate rearguard action being fought by a few of my colleagues and a very small handful of unenlightened journals).  More about the active vs. passive voice, by the way, in this post, or in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing.

**^And not just via grading penalties for using the passive voice – that’s the least important thing.  I’m penalizing them by putting them in an awkward position, unable to simultaneously please both me and their supervisor – but knowing that both of us have power over them.  Ugh.

***^I know, I’m not as clever as I think I am.  As I am thought to be by me.



23 thoughts on “On teaching writing, and being overruled: a passive-(voice)-aggressive rant

  1. Perlkonig

    Another great resource is Helen Sword’s “Stylish Academic Writing.” Breaking genre norms is hard. I feel your pain.

    I teach plain language in a corporate environment, and I’m very clear that what I do is a sort of guerilla warfare. I tell them I’m not saying they should do something their boss tells them not to do. I’m there to teach them best practices. The hope being that one day they’ll be bosses themselves.

    I think your letter idea is good, and I agree you should keep it shorter and professional (no fly wings). Best of luck. Don’t give up 👍

    Liked by 5 people

  2. jeffollerton

    I run into similar issues with regards to referencing styles. For some colleagues, Harvard is The Only Way. And for some of those, The Format of Harvard as Set Out in the University of Northampton’s Library Guide is The Only Way.

    Deeply, deeply frustrating when you’re trying to get explain to students the value of numbered referencing systems (Vancouver) or that Harvard is not a single format.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Daniel Casey

    it’s entirely acceptable to write in passive voice. however, you’re in the right–if a sentence can be written in active voice then it ought to be re-written such. As a long time composition teacher, I’ve regularly run into the issue you’re describing. this was a good piece on dealing with stubborn colleagues who are simply wrong about what they are teaching

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Alexandre V. Palaoro

    It’s good to see that anyone that teaches scientific writing gets backlash from departmental colleagues! Jokes aside, what you are going through is exactly why I don’t teach scientific writing. I am currently post-doc and got repressed by helping out in a scientific writing course (not to mention the occasional cursing when I review student’s projects).
    After some discussions with researchers that teach scientific writing here in Brazil, I found that the most common strategy is to remove the advisor from the equation. To do that, researchers use two main strategies.
    The first strategy is perhaps the easy one. Simply keep doing what you are doing but remove the advisor from the reviews. Students (and you) are still going to hear from their advisor, but by then the course is over.
    The second strategy is to use the first classes to elaborate and execute short projects. These short projects are then used as the material for the writing classes.
    Neither strategy is ideal. But I have heard rants that even talking face-to-face with the advisors does not work. Thus, people are using the path of least resistance to teach.

    Hopefully some of this partial rant of mine helps!

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Brian Waters

    I agree that active voice is the modern preferred style in MOST of the article. But, not in the Materials and Methods section. I’ve never seen the active voice used there in a published article. And, I think, for good reason. Writing Materials and Methods in the passive voice puts the emphasis on the materials and methods, rather than on the doer of the methods.

    For the same reason, I tell my students to use the active voice, and at the same time, minimize or eliminate ‘we’ or ‘I’ as the subject of the sentence. For example, a sentence such as “We observed that the plants in treatment X were twice as tall as those in the control treatment” can be easily edited to “The plants in treatment X were twice as tall as those in the control treatment.” There is no difference in scientific content, but the subjects of the sentences are completely different. The first version puts the emphasis on the scientists, while the second version puts the emphasis on the science.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I use active voice in Methods all the time, so clearly you’re not reading MY papers 😉

      Putting the focus on the science is plausible, but I think accomplishing that by pretending humans were not involved is peculiar. But like you, I don’t advocate 100% active, because some variety in rhythm helps, and there are other specific situations where passive works. But nobody needs encouragement to use extra passive; that takes care of itself!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Marco Mello

    Thanks for sharing your story! I have a very similar experience when teaching scientific writing or any other course on the key skills needed in Academia: writing, public speaking, logics, hypothetical-deductive method, sampling design, statistical inference, or data management. Some advisors want their students to improve their skills, but only under the condition that the lecturer’s way does not conflict with their own way. I also try to turn conflicts into teaching opportunities, but some scientists don’t like their students to know alternative views. Some get quite angry. Many of my colleagues have similar experiences, when teaching those courses: you get the rep of being the arrogant lecturer who makes everybody’s life difficult.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Macrobe

    Challeneing scientific convention is always difficult, but the letter to advisors Is a step. Your letter might even stimulate questioning and thought about their own proclivities. You might also invite them to a class.

    Your post brings to mind two papers I read last weekend, published in the late 1880’s. Both authors wrote in the active voice throughout, including the materials and methodology sections. That raised my eyebrows, wondering if the active voice was more common in scientific literature back then. If that is so, you may be be taking scientific writing full circle.

    Scientific writing is telling a story. As with any writing -fiction and non-fixtion- authors use narratives to convey accurate representations. Perhaps a comment by narrative theorist Brian Richardson* may apply to scientific writing as well as other non-fiction and fiction: “…..what is meant by first or third person narration is not the pronoun being used, but the position of the narrator.” From that perspective, a combination of narrative voices, including active and passive voices, might serve if placed well.

    * Richardson, Brian (2006). Unnatural Voices: Extreme narration in modern and contemporary fiction. Ohio State University.

    Liked by 2 people

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  11. Elizabeth Moon

    Not yet mentioned: writing in active voice first person impresses on both the writer and the reader who is responsible for the content. Since identifying the person responsible for the contents of a research paper–who did the actual research, the calculations, the writing–matters in science, the use of first person–centering the scientist–is not a matter of stroking ego so much as verifying responsibility.

    Its secondary benefit is humanizing the storytelling, which pulls the reader into the action and–surprisingly–makes the reader more sensitive to errors in procedure. A casual reader (and scientific papers do have casual readers–I am one) can sometimes glide right past errors that should have been caught by editors and reviewers but weren’t, because the average Methods section’s relentless passive voice results in passive reading. This was done, that was done, this was calculated, that was calculated…the reader’s eyes hunt for something interesting among the thicket of details but lose focus. Not worth it, let’s jump to Conclusions and Discussion. What’s all this about, anyway?

    First person centers an actual person doing something–always more interesting–and as the reader pictures what’s being done, the reader with experience is more apt to notice…wait, you had 243 seedlings in that set but all your calculations are based on 200? What did you do with those other 43? When and why did you discard them? First person is a feature, not a bug.

    (This is less true in fiction writing, where first-person stories are often NOT about a writer’s own experience. The first person is used to deepen a reader’s understanding of a character.)

    First person writing cannot ensure honesty. Determined liars will lie; the evidence will be in their writing but deliberately obscured. On the other hand, third person passive voice does not ensure objectivity or honesty, either one or both.

    Liked by 1 person

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