I know that many scientific papers are expected to be written in passive voice according to APA style. However, I don't know if this applies to literary papers too? Or should they be written in active voice?

In this paper, we have selected Mahmoud Dolatabadi’s works to consider this story phenomenon.


In this paper, Mahmoud Dolatabadi's works are selected to consider this story phenomenon.

? Which fits literary article writing better? I did some googling only to find out the hits were related to scientific writing in general.

  • 1
    When reading literary journals, which voice do you see used most often? If you google literary journal rankings and peruse articles from the top few hits, what voice do they use?
    – Dan Bron
    Oct 28, 2014 at 11:58
  • 1
    Since this question deals with academic professional standards, you might get see Academia
    – user3416517
    Oct 28, 2014 at 21:40

2 Answers 2


Conventions have changed. Fifty or a hundread years ago much of scientific literature, especially in the humanities, was written in an impersonal (often passive) or generalizing ("one", "we") style, implying professional detachment and an objective view.

Today, both the relativity of knowledge (that "things might be different for different people or at different times") and the role of the scholar (effects of unavoidable preconceptions on results) have been painstakingly studied and led to the necessity that scientists not ignore or smooth over these effects that are always there, but clearly explain how they dealt with them. This more honest and self-reflective scientific approach is reflected in a writing style that echos the responsibility of the scholar.

Practically this means, that at least in the natural sciences the agent(s) of the study and their exact procedures are clearly named, which leads to unambiguous self-reference – discussed in this related question – and

active voice:

We invited participants and asked them to do this or that.

I found that so and so.

But conventions being what they are, you should always ask your teachers for the conventions in your field, and adhere to them.

The APA Publication Manual (2009, p. 77) recommends using the active voice:

3.18 Verbs

Verbs are vigorous, direct communicators. Use the active rather than the passive voice, and select tense and mood carefully.

Prefer the active voice.

     We conducted the survey in a controlled setting.
     The survey was conducted in a controlled setting.

The passive voice is acceptable in expository writing and when you want to focus on the object or recipient of the action rather than on the actor. For example, "The speakers were attached to either side of the chair" emphasizes the placement of the speakers, not who placed them—the more appropriate focus in the Method section. "The president was shot" emphasized the importance of the person shot.

The MLA Handbook (in chapter 3) also recommends the use of the active voice, because it is usually briefer, clearer, and more emphatic than the passive voice. But if the actor is unknown or unimportant or the recipient of the action should receive the emphasis, a passive construction is better.

  • So, I concluded from your answer that active voice is preferable nowadays in most scientific disciplines, especially "natural sciences", and including the field under my question i.e. literature. Oct 29, 2014 at 10:43
  • Yes, see my edit. The MLA is the standard style guide for literature studies, and it also recommends the active voice for most situations. If you google something like "MLA passive voice" or "APA passive voice", you will find some more extensive discussions and examples.
    – user5645
    Oct 29, 2014 at 12:12
  • @misaq: Active voice is frequently used also in engineering disciplines. In any case, be coherent with your choice. Oct 29, 2014 at 20:15

The passive voice is more professional when referring to 'self', but in the long run it gets tiring to the reader. If you need to use 'we', use passive voice instead, but whenever you can, activate other subjects and use active voice when referring to them:

In this paper a selection of Mahmoud Dolatabadi's works shows the phenomenon of this story.

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