voice

Mind the Voice

In which we learn about the two voices we can write with: Active and Passive

Image Courtesy Shea Writing & Training Solutions

Visionary Writing Techniques #15

“Mind the Voice”

by John Onorato


Wow, y’all can be really wordy sometimes! (And I love it!)

Still, being wordy can be a bit of a turn-off. We’re all in a crunch for time. It’s like we all have have the attention span of a … ooh, look, a squirrel! … and we’re just itching for an excuse to move on to the Next Big Thing.

With so many businesses, people, friends, customers, and clients clamoring for our attention, we have to be “spot-on” with our messaging.


Mind Your Voice

Good, strong writing always uses the active voice.

Well, ok, almost always.

The active voice is positive. Strong. Concrete. More direct. The subject of the sentence is something or does something. The active voice uses a tone that is strong and clear.

When using the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is acted upon by the verb of the sentence. “Subtle” and “weak” are qualities often attributed to the passive voice.

Pop quiz: Were you paying attention? What “voice” did I use to write the two paragraphs immediately above?

Get a ⭐ Gold Star ⭐ if you said something on the order of “The active voice sentence used the active voice, and the passive one used passive voice.”


But That’s Not All

That’s not the only difference between the two voices.

When using the active voice, it’s easier to keep your word count down. This is because in the passive voice, the sentence’s subject is acted upon by the verb. This necessitates some form of the verb “to be” plus the past participle form of the verb, plus a preposition. Usually. (English is weird, I know.)

Let me share a small example.
Active Voice: “David threw the ball”
Passive Voice: “The ball was thrown by David”

Both sentences say the same thing. In both sentences, David hauls off and chunks a ball to someone off-screen. But one of those sentences takes 4 words, whereas the other takes 6. When considering just once sentence, 50% more words is no big deal. But in the context of a whole essay, it makes a bigger difference ❤

All that being said, sometimes the passive voice comes in handy. If you’re a politician, say — they seem to avoid the active voice at all costs! Later on I’ll talk about a few other situations where the passive voice would be appropriate.

Or let’s say you’re writing an essay about a llama. (Yes, I know that in the visionary group we tend to write about things other than llamas. But that’s all I got for right now!). In that case, the sentence “The llama was lloved on by the llemur” is appropriate.

Why? Because the subject of that piece is the llama. Thus the active voice sentence “The lemur loved on the llama” might not fit as well. It brings too much attention on our lemur friend.

Those last three words — “by the lemur” — is a short prepositional phrase that identifies who is performing the action. But even though the lemur is the one doing the loving, he’s not the grammatical subject any more. Using the passive voice enables you to drop poor Zoboomafoo (the lemur) from the sentence entirely, as “The llama was lloved on” also makes sense.

Generally speaking, the active voice is more appropriate, more useful. But the passive voice has its uses too. Do write most of your sentences with the active voice, though, unless that sentence won’t make sense any other way.


Other Occasions

The passive voice is not “incorrect.” Nor is it “bad” or “wrong.” At the same time, though, it tends to sound dishonest. Stiff. Evasive. Even less trustworthy than it possibly could sound. That’s why politicians use it a lot.

But who wants to do business with someone who sounds dishonest? Who wants to work with people that avoid taking responsibility in their words? After all, if they avoid responsibility in their words, it’s likely they avoid it in their actions and business practices as well.

Face that responsibility head on. Own it. Take charge of it.

Passive Voice: “An error was made on your account.”
Active Voice: “We made an error on your account.”

Put another way: When using the passive voice, it’s easy to muddy the waters. It’s easier to obfuscate the subject, as it’s typically not specified.

When using the active voice, you have to identify the subject. In the passive example just above, an error was made. Great. Who made the error? Who is responsible? We just don’t know.

In the active voice example, it’s clear that “WE” made the error. And sure, that pronoun can refer to just about anything, but that’s the subject of a different essay.


In Conclusion

This is English we’re talking about here. So there are no “hard and fast” rules.

At the same time, though, you’re better off using the active voice when you’re writing about a definite subject that’s performing a definite action.

In other situations, the passive voice works well. Like in scientific contexts Or in reports of incidents in which the agents are unknown. Or if you want to emphasize the action itself, and the agent of that action is distracting or irrelevant.

Now get out there and write! I love reading your essays 🙂

Posted by John Onorato in Visionary, 0 comments

Read Your Own Writing

Image Courtesy nme.com

Visionary Writing Techniques #004

by John Onorato

As you all know, I’m a professional writer.  World-class, even!  

Today I’m going to let you in on another little secret that improved my writing from the first time I used it.  

I’m completely serious.  There’s no hyperbole in there at all.  We’ll get into hyperbole later, but for now, just know that hyperbole is the greatest and most amazing invention since sliced bananas.  

(and that’s what hyperbole is:  Massive exaggerations that aren’t meant to be taken literally.)

So here’s that little trade secret.  Yeah, most pro writers know about it, and most amateurs don’t.

That secret is this:
Once you’ve gotten to a place where you think “I’m done, now I can drop this in the Visionary group and get back to my regularly-scheduled life,” go back over your work.  

Re-read your work.  
And not only that, but read it aloud.  

That’s right. Speak it. Give life to your words, through your voice!

Reading your work aloud is the best way I have discovered to find out how my writing really sounds.  Which is another way of saying “How good my writing is.”

There are lots of benefits to be had by reading your work out loud.

First off, reading aloud is a great proofreading technique.  It helps you catch errors in spelling and punctuation; it also helps you choose different (and hopefully better) words than what you used in your first draft.  It also makes certain things painfully obvious, like missing punctuation and awkward word placement.  It  also becomes obvious when you’ve repeated words a few too many times.  

Reading aloud helps with grammar.  When someone reads aloud, you pause where you would naturally.  And when you pause, you need punctuation — usually a comma or period.  You might also notice when you haven’t taken a breath in a while.  This is frequently indicative of a run-on sentence that needs to be broken up.

Reading your work out loud reveals holes in your thought process.  It shows us places we haven’t been clear enough, and helps us remember information we might have left out.  It shows us where we might have missed some important points.  When reading aloud, it’s much easier to detect flaws in your logic.  You will quickly know when you need to tidy up your argument, or where you need to research more, or when you might need to not mention a point you can’t really support.

Reading out loud enables us to make better word choices.  Words convey meaning, and we have lots of words with similar meanings because words also convey nuance.  This is that distinction of connotation/denotation I was talking about earlier.  Hearing your words out loud helps convey nuance in a way seeing it on a screen might not.

Finally, reading aloud reveals peculiar rhythm and pacing.  In a symphony orchestra, musicians work together to create something greater than any of them could do alone.  When you’re writing a story or article, words work together in the same fashion.  Each of them has its own small task, and when taken together they form a cohesive unit that is larger than the sum of its parts.  

Want to hear how well your orchestra is performing?  Read it out loud.  One short, choppy sentence, or several in a row, serves well when you want to underline an important point.  But use too many of these in a row, and you’ll sound robotic.  Conversely, long, complex sentences are sometimes required — yet they are also best used sparingly, like exclamation points or F-bombs.

You’ll never know unless you re-read your work.  You won’t be aware of these things if you don’t read your words out loud.

Ever played with a tape recorder?  Then you know your recorded voice will sound different to your ears.  It’s not the same voice you hear in your head, through your bones.  In a similar fashion, your words will sound different when you read them.  Words sound differently to our ears than they do in our minds, when we read them on the page.

Sure, your writing might be great already, all by itself.  Just as your “real” voice is the voice others hear, though, your writing is only as good as others think it is.

Posted by John Onorato in Visionary, 2 comments