The passive voice: anyone who’s ever written a lab report or student essay will be mighty familiar with this concept. And they’ll possibly, like me, think it’s an absolute disaster.
So, in case you’re among the fortunate uninitiated, what is the passive voice? Well, it’s that special stylistic affectation which makes most academic writing almost unreadable because the reader is quite likely to die of boredom before the end of the piece. This is, you will agree, rhetorically problematic.
Where a normal writer who cared about his or her audience might write, “I divided the DNA between twenty microcentrifuge tubes”, the passive voice version would read, “The DNA was divided between twenty microcentrifuge tubes”.
The general idea of using the passive voice is to divert attention from the author and reassign it to the procedure or topic under discussion.
All well and good, but in a long piece of writing the passive voice makes things really dull. And it’s awfully hard to use without tying yourself and your sentences up in knots. Unless your supervisor, lecturer or teacher is going to mark you down for eschewing the passive voice, I’d counsel you to use the active voice—aka your normal writing style—instead.
Of course, if you’re doing a lab report, this probably means you’re going to have to use the dreaded ‘I’ at some point. But that’s okay. Wielded with skill, ‘I’ works well: search for scientific writing by Andy Purvis or Tom Ezard to see some great examples of the first person used in an academic context.
Not only that, I always feel that using ‘I’ in a lab report has more integrity, since you’re owning your lab work right here in print. You’re not trying to make the write-up all about you, but you are formally acknowledging your role in the investigation. This is quite appropriate.
Of course, the passive voice has its uses. These are many, so I’ll refer you to this comprehensive article from the BBC World Service which explores its potential. My general rule of thumb, however, is to avoid the passive voice unless I have a very sound reason for using it.