Curse you, passive voice! 3

I’ve been reading a lot of scientific papers lately; I’m in two classes, and I’m trying to get in a sufficient amount of reading on topic before my research starts up. Easier said than done… for the most part, scientific papers tend to knock me out, even if I’m not tired when I start reading. And it’s not a fatigue issue, anyway; if I’m reading something that I’m interested in, it doesn’t matter how tired I am. I’ll stay up until four in the morning just because I need to read One More Page.

I think papers just knock me out because, for the most part, they’re badly written. There’s a lot of jargon, but that’s unavoidable in a specialized field. I think the bigger problem tends to be writing style. I’ll go out on a limb and guess that most scientists aren’t like me (writing fiction as a masochistic hobby) or my friend Evan (who has a BA in English). When I took my “writing in the geosciences” undergrad course – which I wasn’t terribly impressed by – most of the other students were just miserable about being there, because they hated writing so much.

Actually disliking the process of writing is not going to help when it comes to producing a coherent, interesting paper. I suppose the more the writer feels like he or she is fighting with the English language, the more the reader will feel like it, too.

There are a lot of things that make scientific papers a giant slog to read. I think one of the major ones is the ubiquitous use of passive voice. In prose, passive voice is the kiss of death. It’s something to be avoided entirely or used only sparingly, because it tends to interfere with the reader’s ability to connect with the action.

Of course, scientific articles aren’t fiction. Most of the time.

But the thing is, a lot of people who write scientific papers tend to use passive voice. I think it’s because it makes them sound somehow more impartial – one of the big uses of passive is to remove the doer from a sentence. “A simulation was run” as opposed to “we ran a simulation.” I can understand that desire, but it makes it damn hard to read and stay interested, particularly when it sounds like the methods section is just kind of running itself without any sort of human intervention.

I bring this up because I read an article in Geology over the weekend that didn’t hammer the reader with passive sentences, and it was a treat to read. I was tired, and it didn’t knock me out. I was interested. I felt engaged by the writing. Now, I can’t really say too much about the subject itself, since it deals with climate modeling and that’s not something I personally do. But the writing was definitely a step above most of the other articles I’ve read lately.

Go check it out for yourself, if you have Geoscience World subscription: CO2-driven ocean circulation changes as an amplifier of Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum hydrate destabilization (Lunt et al)

It’s a sad statement on the writing in this field when article that doesn’t make me fall asleep at my desk warrants an excited blog post.

3 thoughts on “Curse you, passive voice!

  1. Reply Emily Oct 15,2010 22:28

    lawl. you think that’s bad, try reading _history_ papers. that’s a real snoozer. passive voice is expected, if not demanded. i mean, how can you speak non-passively about history? think about it.

    you realise, however, that you’re not actually _supposed_ to read these fuckers, just read the abstract, skim the article superficially, then devour the footnotes.

  2. Reply Karen Oct 18,2010 06:35

    When I worked at the IEEE Computer Society’s publications office, my job was to eliminate passive voice — not just because it’s inelegant, but because it’s unclear. It is always better to know the actor in a sentence, even if it’s just “the algorithm transforms…”

    Continue to fight the good fight, right-minded scientists. :)

  3. Reply Anonymous Oct 18,2010 22:16

    When I wrote my Master’s dissertation I was instructed to use the active voice. Lots of engineer types were unhappy because they didn’t know any other way to write than to use the passive voice.

    Go with the active. Always.

    Steve
    (Mike’s Dad)

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