What’s Worse Than Passive Voice

The terms “active” and “passive” can be confusing. They describe not only the syntax but also how they feel. We call a sentence passive if it feels flat, regardless of whether its verb is in the passive or active voice.

The success of the project depends on cost control

The project will succeed if we can control costs.

The first example certainly feels less active than the second, even though it has no passive verbs (in the grammatical sense of passive voice). Why? For two reasons. First, because it’s missing an important character – we. And second, neither of its actions – success and control – are verbs. They are both examples of what we call “nominalization.”

“Nominalization” is a technical term for a kind of noun that we create out of a verb. So, for example, the verb succeed becomes the noun success. And the active word expect gets flattened down to lame expectation.

Used carelessly, these nouns can turn any sentence boring, passive, and flat. Once you nominalize the verb, you drain the active life of a sentence. Worse, you disappear the character who does that action. For example:

We expected that we would recruit the staff quickly.

Our expectation was that our recruitment of the staff would be quick.

Our The expectation was for our quick recruitment of the staff.

Guys, listen. If you’re too aloof, you’ll often combine passive verbs with nominalizations. And it will sound awful. Instead of writing clearly:

We investigated why the employment office interviewed so few minority applicants. 

You’ll write:

We conducted an investigation into why the employment office did so few interviews of minority applicants.

Or even worse:

An investigation was conducted into why so few interviews were done.

When business leaders combine nominalizations with passives, they create the kind of bureaucratic, inauthentic prose of those who confuse authority with remote impersonality and polysyllabic abstraction.

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How to Stop Shoplifters (and other notes on writing)

shoplifters 2

How many times have you walked into a shop and seen this sign:

Shoplifters will be prosecuted.

Really? By whom? Invisible lawyers, hiding in the walls? No wonder shoplifters ignore these warnings.

What if every retail store put up a sign that said:

Our manager is really scary biker dude, and if we catch you shoplifting, he will make you suffer. 

Would-be shoplifters might take another moment to consider a sign like that.

These examples demonstrate the difference between the passive and active voice. In first example, shoplifters will be prosecuted, but the sign doesn’t tell us who will do the prosecuting. That’s the problem with the passive voice.

Why is the passive voice so pervasive in business? Because organizations resist assigning responsibility.

Think about it. When you write in the active voice, you have a subject and a verb – someone doing something. The manager will make you suffer. It has a certain agency to it. There’s a main character to this story.

But when you write that same sentence in the passive voice, the subject isn’t doing anything – something is being done to it. All agency disappears. The main character is lost. Now events are just happening, and no one is responsible for them.

Instead of hiding behind the passive voice, be responsible for your actions. Tell us who you are, and what you plan to do.

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Break These Rules!

Do what you can, right now, to break these rules:

  • Don’t start a sentence with and or but
  • Don’t begin a sentence with because.
  • Never end a sentence with a preposition. Write, “To whom do you speak?” not “Who are you speaking to?”
  • Never use less for words you can count. Use fewer.
  • Never split an infinitive, as in “To boldly go where no man has gone before.”
  • Don’t use which for restrictive clauses. Use that.
  • Don’t use than after the word different. You must write different from.
  • Don’t use between with three or more items, as in between you, me, and him.
  • Don’t use shall to signal a strong intention in the first person – use will. In the second and third person, do the opposite.

That rule about “shall” is so archaic, I can’t believe it still shows up in grammar guides.

I strongly encourage you to start squashing these little worms of classroom folklore that have wiggled their way into so many minds. They are not real rules, and no one who violates them is going to hell. So relax!

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Concise? That’s Affirmative.

A crucial part of writing with concision is to look out for negation. That is, words like no and not, and words that start with the prefix un-.

Whenever possible, switch a negative into an affirmative.

When you express an idea in its negative form, you often have to insert an extra word (like no or not). Worse, you force your reader to decode your meaning through a sort of algebra that’s no fun. For example:

No:      Do not write in the negative.

Yes:     Write in the affirmative.

Both these sentences mean exactly the same thing. But the second one, the affirmative is more direct.

Almost any negative can be transformed:

  • not many                    few
  • not different              similar
  • not often                    rarely
  • not the same              different
  • not admit                   deny
  • not allow                    prevent
  • not include                 omit
  • not notice                   overlook
  • not consider               ignore
  • not remember           forget

Of course, some words are implicitly negative and cannot be converted. For example:

  • against
  • contradict
  • deny
  • lack
  • prohibit
  • unless

But beware that you don’t use too many of them in the same sentence, or you’ll confound your reader.

No:      Except when applicants have failed to submit applications without all documentation, benefits will not be denied.

Yes:     To receive benefits, submit all your documents.

And you’ll baffle your reader even more if you dare combine these negatives with the passive voice, like this:

No:      Payments should not be submitted without the office being notified unless the payment does not exceed $100.

Yes:     If you submit more than $100, notify the office first.

In other words, write what you mean, and state it in the affirmative.

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How Did I Get Here?

Lots of practice, that’s how.

I’ve written more than a dozen advertising campaigns. I’ve written for billboards, print ads, TV and radio. And I’ve written web content at which you could shake a stick.

I’ve toiled as a copywriter for years. And before that, I was an editor for some academic journals. Plus, I’ve spent a lot of time reviewing and proofreading other people’s work. And over time, I have observed a common trend:

Some of the smartest, most educated people are the ones who have the toughest struggle to write.

In fact, I could even claim that it’s harder for smart, educated people to write. Not only is their professional reputation at stake – thanks to our schools, they’ve got their heads filled with years of doublespeak and jargon.

As a result, I spend the majority of my time as an editor, crossing out clichés, meaningless words, redundancies, and sometimes a whole sentence that doesn’t belong. My final version is often half the length of the rough draft.

But why should you pay me to edit your work for you? Wouldn’t you rather learn to write with concision and edit your work yourself?

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10 Ways to Write a Love Letter

A good love note is one of the most challenging and risky things a guy can write. But it can be done. This Valentine’s Day, follow these ten guidelines and your words will win her heart.

BTW – Because it’s often straight men who need the most help, I put these together for guys to write notes to their lady friends. But that doesn’t mean they don’t apply to everyone else – female, gay, whatever – you can score, too, with these 10 tips to write a love letter.

Here goes.

1. Write It By Hand

Email and text are too easy. Romance requires that you show a little effort. So take out a piece of paper and use a nice ink pen.

2. Salutations

Don’t waste time agonizing over “Dear Girlfriend” versus “My dearest, loveliest munchkin.”

Start with your beloved’s first name. This is the easy part. The first word you write is that person’s first name. Then a comma. That’s it. If her legal name is Catherine but she goes by Cat to you and all your friends, then your love letter begins with, “Cat,” – simple as that.

3. Compliments

Pick the one thing you like most about him or her. Aim for personality, not anatomy. “You always know how to make me laugh” is way more romantic than describing her ass.

4. Say How You Feel

This one can get tough if you linger too long, so I suggest you cut to the chase. Simply fill in the blank. “You make me feel ___.” You don’t have to gush or get sentimental. “I feel more excited and fun when you’re around.”

5. Look Forward

Extend an invitation, like “Let’s get a drink soon.” Or if that’s too forward, then express a hope for the future. “I hope we’ll get to know each other better.” Either way, give her something to look forward to.

6. Don’t Apologize

Never, ever say “I know this is crazy” or apologize if you’re being too aggressive. Simply suggesting that you might be creepy will only plant the idea in her head.

7. Avoid Clichés

“You complete me” is totally beyond the pale. And song lyrics are all wrong, too. The rule of thumb goes like this – if it sounds vaguely familiar, like something you may have heard in a song or a movie, then forget about it.

9. Keep it short

Like, no more than a page. Single-sided. Anything longer, and you’re competing with the Russians.

10. The Farewell

Should you write “Sincerely,” “Yours Truly,” or “Best Regards”? The best answer is – none of the above. If you’re already in a serious relationship, then you can get away with a simple “Love,” – but if you’ve only just met, then leave it out. Skip a line, sign your name, and congratulate yourself on your excellent tact.

So what do you think? Helpful? Romantic? Not squishy enough? If any of you out there use these guidelines, then send me a note and let me know how it works out! Give me some feedback in the comments.

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Stop That Hissing!

Have you ever had to sit through a speech where the speaker whistled and hissed through every other word?

That hissing sound at the end of every sentence – you hear it all the time.

It’s all too common in Southern California, where it’s practically become a feature of the local dialect. It can be painful to listen to. This is just my opinion, but to me, that hissing sibilant sounds weak!

Don’t do that to your readers.

If you want to be kind to your reader, think about how your words will sound. Try to keep the letter –s off the end. I know, it isn’t easy when it’s one of the most frequently occurring letters in the alphabet. Here are three suggestions:

  • If you can choose between a singular and a plural noun, go for the singular.
  • Never, ever alliterate two words that both start with the letter S.
  • Try re-arranging the order of your words, so that the sentence doesn’t end with an S sound.

That last tip is my favorite, because it gives you so much flexibility and freedom. When people see how many different ways they can combine and mix their word order, they freak out with joy.

Variety is awesome. That’s why I made variety one of the central themes of the Crazy Smart Wordshop – my upcoming writing seminar for business leaders! Stay tuned.

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