Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has joined the Campaign Against the Passive Voice. He follows in the footsteps of Strunk and White (whose section on the passive voice, while more nuanced than many people recognise, is calamitously misleading) and of George Orwell (who complained about the passive while using it extensively himself, even in the same sentence as his complaint).
The campaign isn’t wholly wrong, but it goes too far and it doesn’t properly understand the problem. The passive voice is often better than the active, and its overuse is usually a symptom of something else.
What’s the difference?
Roughly: in the active voice, the agent performing the action is the grammatical subject of the sentence and the recipient of the action is the grammatical object. The passive voice switches this around, making the recipient of the action the grammatical subject and the agent the object. Passive verbs are formed…
Readers faced with pages of text broken only by paragraph spaces will probably feel overwhelmed and stop reading. As a nonfiction writer, you have information that you need to share with your readers. So it makes sense to make it as easy as possible for them to continue reading and to understand what you are saying.
Headings serve multiple purposes in helping your readers by
breaking the text into reader-friendly chunks
providing signposts for your readers to keep them mindful of the structure of your work
helping you promote your argument.
As a technical writer, your aim is to lead your readers to reach the same conclusion that you have. Headings provide a context for your readers – both writer and readers begin at the same place and continue along the same path, guided by the headings.
Readers need headings
to give an overall picture
to point out where they are in the discussion
to assist in making the connections between the points of the argument.
Your readers understand the details better if they have been given an overview first. Remember, it’s the headings that provide the overview.
Readers will retain those details longer when they know in advance the nature of the information they are going to receive.
The heading level indicates the degree of detail being discussed.
Advantages for readers
breaking up the text
providing overviews along the way
announcing each key point before its detailed discussion
using the location and size of each topic to indicate its importance
allowing readers to decide where they will start
allowing readers to select what parts of the document they will read
giving readers places to pause, to regroup their thoughts or to rest.
Advantages for the writer
Structuring your document is so much easier!
You can readily check the logical flow of the argument.
You can move sections to a different place in the document when you can easily see the extent of that section.
You can create sub-headings to help you check the structure, and remove the sub-headings later if your document template or format does not allow for that number of levels.
You don’t have to provide transitions between topics.
A word of warning!
If your headings feed into an automatically generated table of contents, make sure your final task before publishing is to update the table of contents.
PS If, for whatever reason, you can’t include headings, you can use them to help you structure your writing – then delete them during the reviewing process.
Headings help both the writing and reading processes.