My dusty but beloved writing stylebook by William Strunk and E.B. White urges the reader to use active voice, not passive voice. The AP Stylebook agrees, adding: Write in an inverted pyramid, with key information in the first sentences, and supporting but less vital facts trailing behind.
All of this conforms to how people consume information found in printed magazines and newspapers. Do these rules hold up to web reading habits?
According to web usability demigod Jakob Nielsen, the answer is yes and no.
Initially in his recent post, he asserts, “Active voice is best for most Web content.” But he concedes that the web has introduced a new concept to consider. It’s called the information scent.
This refers to “the extent to which users can predict what they will find if they pursue a certain path through a website.” He continues as follows:
Using passive voice can let you front-load important keywords in headings, blurbs, and lead sentences. This enhances scannability and SEO [search engine optimization] effectiveness.
It also breaks several sacrosanct rules of conventional writing.
Neilsen defends his points well. He says that users scan content so quickly that they “often read only the first 2 words of a paragraph.” [Emphasis mine.] Therefore, he contends, this summary statement is acceptable by all measures except scannability and SEO effectiveness:
Yahoo Finance follows all 13 design guidelines for tab controls, but usability suffers due to AJAX overkill and difficult customization.
To fix this, here is his proposed solution:
13 design guidelines for tab controls are all followed by Yahoo Finance, but usability suffers due to AJAX overkill and difficult customization.
Much better! Why, you ask? He explains it this way:
Because “13” is sufficiently short, users will likely fixate on the first 3 words, not just the first 2, when they initially scan the blurb. Also, numerals beat words when referring to specifics, so starting with “13” is even better at attracting the scanning eye.
I’m sure Mr. Strunk and Mr. White are spinning in their graves like a pair of synchronized swimmers. But in fairness, they never faced the challenge of an audience so awash in information. It’s a challenge that I, for one, find exciting. But I still will occasionally dip into this duo’s eloquent love letter to clear writing. I’ve probably reread it 20 times.
What’s more — and this is quite sincere:
I feel sorry for writers who did not fall in love with writing back when active voice reigned supreme.
Scratch that. How about:
Writers raised on passive voice, necessitated by information scents, are a target of my pity.