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George Orwell and keeping active

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6231625492_37c9e6570b_bWhen we're writing for GOV.UK, we use the active voice, but a lot of the source content we're rewriting uses the passive voice.

This is one of the most significant differences in style between Smarter Guidance content on GOV.UK and the content it replaces.

The first person to tell me about the passive voice was my science teacher, when I was 13 years old.

He was an angry and occasionally inspirational man - like Father Jack of Father Ted mixed with Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. (Mostly Jack.)

When he wasn't on a long-winded tangent about life ("sometimes people die, and that's that") or sport ("it's all about the balance") - he insisted that we had to record our juvenile science experiments in the passive voice.

So “iron filings were added”, “the miniscus was read”, and “the Bunsen burner was hooked up to the tap for use as a water pistol”.

The next time I heard about the passive voice was at university, in George Orwell’s Politics And The English Language.

One of Orwell's six rules for writing well is “never use the passive when you can use the active”.

Why the passive voice doesn't help

Sometimes we might think we've got a good reason to write in the passive voice. Maybe we're talking about something that might scare a user, like fining them or asking them to pay a fee.

It's certainly true that the more passive sentences we use, the less likely it is that we'll alarm users. That's because we're more likely to confuse them. A confused person on the internet probably won't stay on our webpage for very long, let alone complain about it.

But a website that just confused people into silence wouldn't be much use to anyone.

In other cases, we might use the passive voice because it seems more formal or proper. But formality won't help users to understand who's going to send them an application form, or issue their licence.

A short and clear sentence that uses the passive voice might be ignored. But when we use it repeatedly we quickly create problems.

Body XYZ will need to be satisfied that inspected cow limousines meet legal requirements concerning law 123, otherwise operators may be fined.

After reading the above sentence, I don't know who'll inspect my cow limousine, I don't know who'll fine me, I don't know exactly whose responsibility it is to "satisfy" Body XYZ, and I don't know what law 123 is either.

You must prove to inspectors from Body XYZ that your cow limousine has leather seats and air conditioning, otherwise Body XYZ will fine you 50p.

Simpler. Clearer. Faster.

Be transparent, be clear

People in politics talk a lot about transparency - it's worth remembering that "clarity" means the same thing. Every time we lose clarity, we also lose transparency. When we lose transparency, we lose people's trust.

On the other hand, when we write clearly, we give users a clear view of how the law works.

And when we keep our writing active, we help users to be active too, by empowering themselves with that knowledge.

While we're at it, Orwell's other 5 rules are well worth keeping in mind too:

  1. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it's possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  5. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Find out how we organise online guidance and learn more about keeping guidance simple.

Follow Ronan on Twitter: @rmkf.

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