Reprinted from the blog, Writing Mafia
Ritva Siltanen, Nokia Siemens Networks


I’ve always been a strong proponent of writing in the active voice. Sometimes I’ve heard people argue that it suits fiction writing best and that in technical manuals it’s OK to use the passive voice extensively. They say you should depersonalize the text if it has to do with machines. I couldn’t disagree more.

We come across technical instructions in everyday situations with household appliances, cell phones, tools, baby car seats … you name it. It’s really frustrating to read the manual and try to figure out whether you are the one who has to do something, or if the machine is going to perform the stated action as a result of something you did earlier. As a technical writer, you will want to provide the information in a clear and ambiguous way, and writing active sentences is one of the means to get there.

Compare these examples:

  • Insert the CD-ROM in the disc drive. The software is now installed by running setup.exe.
  • Insert the CD-ROM in the disc drive. Locate the setup.exe file, and double click the file to start the installation.

In the first case, someone might think that just by inserting the CD-ROM, the setup.exe thing (and who cares what it is anyway) runs and installs the software. It’s not immediately obvious that the user has to take the action. After all, there are many CDs that use the autorun feature.

Even when you’re writing for a highly technical audience, such as system administrators or installation engineers, take your time to understand the part of the product or system you are describing. Don’t be tempted to write passive sentences that are (purposefully) ambiguous.

Compare these examples:

  • The system installation is complete. Now the parameters are configured and the configuration file is loaded into the database.
  • The system installation is complete. Now you configure the parameters. The script then loads the configuration file into the database.

When reading the first example, the users probably assume that they have to do everything, or that everything is automated. The second example clearly states who does what.

***Disclaimer: the viewpoints expressed in this article are personal opinions of the author and do not directly relate to the organization or company she works for.***

Ritva Siltanen is a technical communications professional in the telecommunications industry. Currently, she holds the position of documentation project manager at Nokia Siemens Networks. An active contributor to the Writing Mafia blog, she is interested in web user communities and social networking as a phenomenon. Check out her updates on Twitter, too.