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An Active Writing Lesson (Battle For Britain – The Letter) October 1, 2008

Posted by Richard Foote in Richard's Musings.
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Cary Millsap has written a great blog entry, A Lesson In Writing From 1944. It’s a fascinating read regarding letters written by General Eisenhower prior to the D-Day Normandy landings in dark 1944 and how they were subtly modified by the author from “Passive” to “Active” voice. Cary then very nicely discusses how the use of active voice can help make technical writings more clear and concise and how passive voice should be avoided.

It’s a great read because Cary is so very right. So often, technically “suspect” articles and writings are written in the passive voice using what Cary terms “weasel wording”, often in an attempt to hide the insecurities and doubts associated with the author’s lack of knowledge or actual expertise. So many articles from a number of serial offenders spring instantly to mind ;)

A point I would make though is that it’s actually extremely difficult to write a good active voiced technical article. As Cary mentions “When you know something, you say it. When you don’t, active voice pretty much forces you to say that”. The problem from a technical perspective, especially with regard to Oracle database technologies is that it can often be very difficult to say “it” concisely in an active voice manner and yet remain technically accurate.

Many things in Oracle are not “black and white”. Words such as “always”, “never”, “must”, “definitely” , “certainly”, etc. are often dangerous terms to use. The old “it depends”, the great excuse of the passive voiced writer is of course so very true in so many Oracle related scenarios. It’s why “weasel writing” can often be used so effectively in Oracle writings to hide an author’s inadequacies because the casual reader can appreciate and understand how difficult it is to be active voiced, to be confident enough to be clear and precise about a particular subject with the associated ownership.

However, difficult doesn’t mean impossible, not even close. Difficult simply means that a writer to use active voice effectively, needs to not only be both concise and accurate and but also have an in-depth understanding of a specific subject matter to be able to clearly state and include what conditions and caveats a statement might reasonably require. Appreciate that a bold, “simple” statement is only appropriate when the statement is “framed” appropriately based on factors such as the intended audience, the surrounding subtext, the intended overall message, etc. Understand that “vagueness” and “ambiguities”, the “safe havens” of the “passive voiced weasel”, need to be identified and adequately addressed.

And that’s the tricky bit. How to be clear, concise and above all accurate (enough at least for the intended audience) without being too simplistic and/or generalised, thereby allowing ambiguities and uncertainties to cloud or distort the intended message. If “you” have a point to make, just make it clearly without attempting to hide the point with some generalistic insurance. If “you” have an uncertainty or important caveat, make sure “you” attribute that clarification or qualification in a clear and implicit manner. For some, clouding a message or being inaccurate or simply being wrong is the unwanted and undesirable consequence of poorly written active voiced articles. Being both concise and precise without the unwanted ambiguities is the difficult balancing act of the active voiced writer.

Like I said, it ain’t easy.

For some of course, clouding the message is the intended and desirable consequence of writing a passive voiced piece. Without the camouflage, without the ambiguities and confusion, without attempting to pass on possible faults as the possible thoughts of others, the author’s insecurities and deficiencies would be exposed. And that would never do, not when the author’s intent in writing the piece might be to simply make the reader “think” the author knows what they’re talking about …

The power of using the active voice is that, although difficult, it actually makes writing quality work so much easier because it truly forces the author to consider and embed all the necessary “factors” into the writings.  It’s very difficult to be active voiced and accurate without also being precise and yet as comprehensive and as in-depth as necessary. It’s so much harder to “hide” deficiencies and uncertainties because they become so much easier to expose and counteract. They’re clearly your ideas and thought processes, not some vague generalisations that could be attributed to others or to some general consensus.

If one is clear and concise in what one says, it’s so very much easier for others to say you are wrong or inaccurate. If it comes from you, you can’t blame others for mistakes or inaccuracies. That’s why I totally agree with Cary when he says it sometimes requires courage to be active voiced because as a consequence one is so very much more exposed.

Being clear and concise and accurate is of course possible, but only if you actually know what you’re writing about, only if you’re truly confident in what you’re communicating, only if you have the actual technical knowledge to discuss a subject matter openly with the intent to share that knowledge and understanding. Writing in the active voice should be pursed because it actually makes the task of writing a quality piece of work so much easier. Perhaps most important of all, it makes the job of the reader, the intended audience, so much easier as well because a clear and concise piece of writing coming from you is so very much easier to read and comprehend and understand.

And when writing a technical piece, shouldn’t that ultimately be the name of the game ?

The next time you read something full of passive tones and ambiguities, just ask yourself why isn’t the author being clear and concise and claiming full ownership in what they’re writing. Question perhaps if they really know what it is they’re writing about ? Maybe even wonder what it might be they’re trying to hide. ;)

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Comments»

1. John Flack - October 1, 2008

Everything I know about writing, I learned from Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Whenever I catch myself using passive voice, I re-write it.

2. Tony - October 1, 2008

Where I work, we are obligated to “plain talk” all of our documents. Which is a fancy way of saying use active voice. We have classes we have to take and then there are little committees that plain talk review major public documents. As you said, it is hard to do when dealing with technical material, but I have to admit that the end result is always easier to read and more understandable. I am always amazed at how much clearer a revised sentence becomes once written in the active voice.

I wonder if Cary knew this topic would hit home so much, Jonathan Lewis has pointed to this blog entry.

3. jarneil - October 1, 2008

Hi Richard,

Erm, I’m a little confused why you have titled this article Battle for Britain?

The Eisenhower is about the D-DAY landings in 1944, by which time there were no concerns about germany invading britain.

Battle of Britain occured in 1940, when there was a great fear of invasion.

Not too sure what these pedantic points have in relation to Oracle, or maybe there is an explanation for your title that I am missing!

jason.

4. Richard Foote - October 1, 2008

Hi Jarneil

I just knew someone would make a comment about the title this time !!

I generally add a song title to the title of a blog entry, simply so I can more easily refer later to a blog entry, so I can make a subject matter be just that little bit more light-weight, so I be different, so I can just promote a song I like …

I try to pick a song title that has some (if often extremely vague) connection to the title proper.

David Bowie’s “Battle For Britain – The Letter” was as close as I could get :)

5. Robert Klemme - October 2, 2008

I know a guy how loves to talk about customers who found performance improvements of factor X after applying measure Y – and you know him, too. Just another case of inactive voice… :-)

6. jarneil - October 2, 2008

Hi Richard,

I should have known with you there would be a simple, rational explanation – as long as you knew where to look, which in this case was the Bowie back catalogue!

cheers!

jason.


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