nielsen: passive voice must be cheered three times by you!

Putting the Cart before the HorseConsidering the name of my writing and editorial business, you might imagine that I would be skeptical of an article extolling the virtues of passive voice. But what if such an article is written by Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen?

Well, in that case, attention must be paid.

In “Passive Voice Is Redeemed For Web Headings,” Nielsen — who essentially invented writing for the Web — recommends passive voice for heads, decks, and ledes because it allows the writer to “front-load important keywords . . . enhanc[ing] scannability and thus SEO effectiveness.” Noting that readers tend not to read deeply into a paragraph (typically only the first two words) before wandering off, Nielsen claims that front-loading should grab and hold their attention more effectively than the traditional subject-first arrangement.

But is passive voice really the best way to accomplish this?

In a previous blog entry, I argued the exact opposite — that passive voice actually tends to “bury the lede.” From the standpoints of cadence and name association, I wrote, active voice actually packs more punch per word. But in that instance I was writing about the narrative form; does the same apply to punchy bursts of words such as headlines?

Yes — and here’s why: any noun can be a subject. If the subject comes across as an object, then the writer needs to keep rewriting until the subject becomes the subject.

Let’s take Nielsen’s example. His original opening sentence for an article targeting users of GUI widgets read: “Yahoo Finance follows all 13 design guidelines for tab controls, but usability suffers due to AJAX overkill and difficult customization.” As he correctly points out, readers scanning this article will likely assume that the article is about Yahoo! or investments.

Nielsen employs passive voice to shift the critical words to the front: “13 design guidelines for tab controls are all followed by Yahoo Finance, but usability suffers due to AJAX overkill and difficult customization.” Notice how this rewrite succeeds in shifting the emphasis to the design guidelines.

But does the rewrite really work? Both sentences pack five subject candidates to the left of the period (“guidelines,” “Yahoo Finance,” “usability,” “AJAX,” and “customization.”). Juggling them around may establish priority, but it does not establish the correct relationship. The effort to keep “Yahoo Finance” in there as a prime mover — despite the fact that readers won’t be interested in it — forces the writer to employ passive structure.

Here’s what you get when you place the subject into proper relationship with its objects, recast some of the diversionary words and phrases, and select a verb that carries more of the load: “Guidelines for tab controls used by Yahoo Finance hinder usability due to AJAX overkill and customization difficulties.” The result is not only shorter and punchier, but it also establishes a clearer relationship between the elements that a reader can take with him or her through the rest of the article.

Or take the title of Nielsen’s article, which is structured passively (presumably intentionally). You can convey the same information in a punchier headline, clarify the relationship between the elements, and still keep the keywords at the front by simply writing, “Passive Voice Improves Web Headings.”

One more thing: eagle-eyed editors will have noticed that Nielsen’s original sentence suggests that the 13 guidelines exist as an industry standard outside of Yahoo Finance, while his rewrite suggests that the guidelines are Yahoo Finance’s own. My rewrite assumes the latter, but active voice would work just as well — and perhaps even better — if the former is really the case: “Guidelines for tab controls hinder usability due to AJAX overkill and customization difficulties, Yahoo Finance has found.”

By transforming carts into horses, a skilled writer can give your message more horsepower.

Author: Paul Lagasse

Paul Lagasse provides expert-to-expert communications services to nonprofit, business, and government clients in the metro Baltimore-DC area. Specialties include science and medical writing, technical report editing, and content marketing.