A blog for writers with tips on editing, proofreading and related tools.

Are secret agents undermining your writing?

There are times when using the passive voice to obscure the agent, the 'do-er', in your writing is really useful. Say, when you're a politician, you've erred and you are desperately trying to skirt around it during a press interview. You'll probably lean on old weasel words like, "mistakes were made", "miscommunications occurred", or better yet, "lessons have been learned". Fantastic, job done. 

However, there are most definitely times when it is not appropriate to use the passive voice. Writing standards is one of those times, whether it be for service, job performance or training.

The active voice is clear and frank. It exposes the subject (the do-er), and thereby facilitates understanding, which is pretty important when writing standards.

The following example is a standard written for some HR training. When you read the passive version, it is not clear who is intended to manage the grievances. Are they just checking to ensure that someone, anyone, has managed it? Or, are they managing the grievance themselves?

Passive voice: Grievances and complaints are managed promptly and in a manner which maximises the likelihood of a positive outcome.

After the standard is converted into active voice, the action required becomes much clearer; the individual themselves is required to manage grievances and complaints.

Active voice: Manage grievances and complaints in a manner that optimises the likelihood of a positive outcome.

NB: I made some additional changes to improve the standard. Managing complaints 'promptly' would constitute part of 'maximising likelihood of a positive outcome', so it has been removed. Also, I prefer to use optimise rather than maximise because it is hard to define a single best outcome for all complaints, so achieving the greatest possible outcome would be impossible. Finally, I switched out 'which' for 'that' because what follows is a defining clause.

Imagine the performance review. A worker is supposed to empty the bin every day, but their job description says 'ensure bins are emptied'. Their co-worker actually emptied the bin, but the worker certainly 'ensured' it was empty by watching their co-worker haul it out.

Technically, the worker is ticking off their KPI. Using the active voice removes the reliance on poor, overused 'ensure', and articulates the required action clearly, 'Empty bins.'

Sure, the above example is a case that few would actually bother to argue (depending on your workplace, I suppose), but closing up these ambiguities in your standards mitigates risk and the reduces potential for misinterpretation. Always a good thing, right?

When writing standards, whether it is for training or in a job description, the active voice is superior because it highlights the agent. In these contexts, knowing who is doing the action is quite important! Save the 007 stuff for working your way out of hot water.