Passive voice redeemed

Here’s something I love about the Internet: the way it forces you to reconsider what you think you already know. Take the passive voice, for example. For years, I’ve urged journalists to avoid it in almost every circumstance. Writing in the passive means putting the object before the verb and sometimes leaving the subject out altogether. That can leave the audience wondering who did what, and it’s often a signal that the writer needed to do more reporting.

Now comes the Internet, which requires a different way of thinking about writing.  While most text should be written in the active voice,  Jakob Nielsen says that rule doesn’t always apply.

Recent findings from our eyetracking research emphasized the overwhelming importance of getting the first 2 words right, since that’s often all users see when they scan Web pages. Given this, we have to bend the writing guidelines a bit, especially for elements that users fixate on when they scan — that is, headlines, subheads, summaries, captions, hypertext links, and bulleted lists.

So to get the right key words at the start, you may need to resort to passive voice.  Example: “Deer hunter finds body of missing girl” is active, but puts the key words at the end.  “Missing girl’s body found” is in passive voice but the key words come first.

This isn’t the only exception to the no passives “rule” for journalists.  When writing to video, you may decide to put the object first because that’s what you have pictures of.  Just be sure that when you use a passive in any medium, you do it for a good reason.