Daily Tips & Tricks for Web Enthusiasts

Writing

Recognize & Avoid Passive Voice

Writing in passive voice can make your writing vague, awkward, longer than necessary. Passive voice also increases the chance that you’ll exclude important information. Today I’m going to show you how to both recognize passive voice and fix it when you find it.

First, let’s talk about the opposite of passive voice: active voice. A sentence written in active voice has the subject performing the action. Here’s an example of a sentence written in active voice:

Justin is teaching you how to recognize passive voice.

That sentence is clear, easy to read, and simple to understand. In this sentence I’m the subject, the action I’m performing is teaching, and you are being taught.

Now let’s look at the passive voice version:

You are being taught to recognize passive voice.

When using passive voice the subject of the action gets promoted to the subject of the sentence. This makes the sentence sound a little strange, and makes it a bit harder to parse and understand. But the problems don’t end there!

Using passive voice increases your risk of leaving out vital information. That’s what happened above. Who’s teaching you? Where did I go? You are now the subject of the sentence, which means forcing the previous subject out. If we try to work me back in, the awkwardness increases:

You are being taught to recognize passive voice by Justin.

That sounds horrible, and it’s even harder to read.

Now, it’s important to understand that passive voice itself is not wrong. In some specific situations it’s actually intentional or preferred. Here are some cases where passive voice makes sense:

  • When the identity of the subject is unknown. This is often the case when writing about crime, or when something anonymous happens. “The laptop was stolen.” “$300 was donated.”
  • When the identity of the subject is not relevant in the current context. “The rocket launch was successful.” “A new species has been discovered.”
  • When the identity of the subject is being concealed on purpose. Politicians and businesses use passive voice to conceal information or avoid blame. “Mistakes were made.” “The asset was secured.” “Your server will be offline for maintenance on Tuesday.”

If you find yourself in any of these situations passive voice might actually be the right choice. That said, it’s important to recognize these situations as what they are: exceptions. Most of the time, active voice is the best choice.

So, if you write a sentence and it sounds a bit off, ask yourself if the subject is taking the action involved. If the subject isn’t taking the action, but is being acted upon, you’ve likely got a case of passive voice.

To fix passive voice, first determine who or what is taking the action. Now rewrite your sentence so they are the subject. You should end up with a better sentence that’s easier to understand, and will often be shorter to boot!

Powerfully Potent Proofreading

You should always find someone else to proofread your writing if you can, but sometimes that isn’t possible. Not to worry! When you’re on your own there’s one easy thing you can do to boost the effectiveness of proofreading your own work: change contexts.

During the act of writing and editing you can easily get too familiar with your surroundings. You stop noticing the room you’re in. You stop paying attention to the text editor you’re using. You stop noticing details. The individual letters and words you’ve written merge together into an abstract blob that represents the concepts you’re writing about. That’s your brain doing its job; it’s designed to take intricate details and abstract them away into simple concepts. This is quite useful for day-to-day life, but it’s murder when you’re trying to edit or proofread.

The good news is that you can get your brain to truly notice your words again simply by changing the context. This technique works best if you can change both the context of your work and your own context.

To change the context of your work try printing what you’ve written and edit it with a pen. No printer? No problem: Print to a PDF, or copy and paste your text into an entirely different app with a different typeface and text size. The idea here is to move your words around and get them to both look and feel as different as possible so your brain notices them again.

As a concrete example, I write these tips in the WordPress dashboard, but I preview them on the site when I proof them. Everything about how the words are displayed is different when I do this, which helps me catch a lot of things I would have missed otherwise.

Another great way to change the context of what you’ve written is to read it aloud. This may not be possible if you’re in a quiet environment, but even whispering it to yourself is better than nothing.

To change your own context simply go into another room to edit and proofread. Maybe it’s your living room, a conference room, the break room, a coffee shop… as long as it’s different enough to jar your brain out of complacency you’ll be able to proofread more effectively.

Find a Proofreader

If you’re writing anything of any importance get at least one other person to proofread it.

Yes, you can proofread your own work (and you should!), but nothing beats a different pair of eyes. Different eyes are attached to a different brain, and that brain is filled with different thoughts, emotions, and perspectives. Those differences will lead to commentary, insights, and revelations you simply cannot have on your own.

You are simply too close to your own writing to proofread it as effectively as someone else can. You often can’t see the forest for the trees, which means you’re going to miss small things like typos and big things like forgetting to remove several sentences you thought you removed yesterday.

Writing is difficult. It gets easier the more you do it, but you’ll never master it. You’ll never reach a point where your words won’t benefit from someone else reading them. Even professional authors with dozens of popular books have proofreaders look at their work before publication. My wife, Aleen, proofreads every single one of these tips before they’re published. Her input has been instrumental to the level of quality and utility you see here at Core Assistance.

Oh, and one last thing: When you find a good proofreader, show your gratitude. Tell them how awesome they are, and do so frequently. Take them to lunch. Pay them. Whatever the arrangement is, make sure you show them how much you appreciate them because a good proofreader is rare and incredibly valuable.

Don’t Revise as You Write

Writing and editing are two seperate processes. You write, then you edit. Trying to do both at the same time leads to frustration and subpar copy.

Why?

Writing something down transforms it from an ephemeral thought into real, tangible words. Concepts in your head are in a constant state of flux. They’re living, slippery things that are all but impossible to get a firm grip on. That’s why writing them down is so powerful.

If you write something down and then immediately try to revise it what you’re really doing is trying to compare concrete words on the page with a wiggly, dynamic thought in your head. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. No, it’s like comparing an apple sitting still on a table with an orange that’s being blended into a smoothie.

The only real way to avoid making these unfair comparisons is to write everything down first, then go back and edit. That’s the only way to know that you’ve truly picked the best words to convey your thoughts.

Write Concisely

In a letter written in 1657, Blaise Pascal wrote the following:

I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.

Blaise knew that a first draft is often a long, rambling affair that can be improved by putting in the time to tighten things up. Concise copy is often better copy, but why is it better? There are several reasons, many of which lead back to a simple truth: Clear and concise writing is respectful of the reader.

Shorter copy is more likely to keep your reader’s attention and saves them time. As your word count decreases, the likelihood that those words will all be read and thoughtfully considered increases. And, with fewer words, there are less places for boredom and repetition to hide.

Indeed, this week’s JavaScript tip began as a nine paragraph draft that didn’t work nearly as well as the five paragraphs I ended up publishing. It took a fair bit of work to trim it down, but (as my wife/proofreader will attest) it was worth the effort.

Write to a Single Person

If you want to make your copy more engaging, avoid writing as if you were speaking to a large group. Instead, write to a single, imaginary person who represents the rough average of your target audience.

Writing to a single person can have a huge impact, and strengthens your connection to your readers. Take this sentence, for example:

Core Assistance helps people share and create things on the web.

That is vague and disconnected. It refers to some nebulous group of “people” that you, the reader, may or may not be a part of. The phrasing also distances the author from the reader; it’s not me speaking to you, it’s just a general statement with no clear audience.

Now compare the example above to this:

Core Assistance is here to help you share and create things on the web.

Not a lot of those words changed, but the difference is profound. The gap between the author and reader has been closed. The relationship is now clear and comfortable. The purpose is clear. You, the reader, are clearly who I’m talking to. You are the one I want to help. It’s clear you’re in the right place.

Again, imagine that single individual that represents your target audience. Bring them into sharp focus in your mind. Visualize them sitting in front of you. What do you want to tell them? What are the words that would come out of your mouth?

Write that down.

Link Wisely

If you’ve spent any length of time on the web you’ve probably seen something like this:

Click here to check out my website, Core Assistance.

That technically works, but linking this way will cause problems.

First of all, it makes the assumption that the person reading this can click. More and more people are using mobile devices with touch screens, and as we move forward there are going to be a significant number of people who have never even used a mouse.

Secondly, linking to things this way takes the person reading out of the narrative. You don’t need to beat people over the head with the fact that there’s a link. It’s clumsy.

Third, linking this way is often annoying to people with disabilities. Screen readers and other assistive software will often compile a list of all links, out of context, to provide a handy set of possible navigation paths for the user. If your link text isn’t descriptive on it’s own that list of links is going to be useless.

Let’s look at another approach:

Check out my website, Core Assistance.

That’s better. Much more natural, fewer words, and there’s no longer a disconnect between the text describing what’s being linked to and the link itself. The link is integrated into the sentence instead of being tacked on as a separate piece, which makes a big difference.

This all might seem like a small thing, but it’s not an exaggeration to say that links are the single most important part of the web, so taking time to do them right is worth it. Your readers will appreciate it, and what you write will be all the better for it.