By Jennifer Stevens
The best way to ensure you’re speaking directly and personally to your reader is to eliminate passive voice from everything you write.
Don’t panic. I know it sounds an awful lot like a grammar directive … something that you might have heard from your sixth-grade English teacher. But bear with me … this is not complicated, and it makes a world of difference in how successful your writing will be.
(I must confess, I did not pull this discussion of passive voice together by myself. For your benefit, I’ve borrowed the diagnosis and the cures from Dr. Thomas Murawski, a long-time advocate for clear writing. He has graciously given me his permission to use them here.)
To eliminate passive voice, of course, you have to know how to find it. Here’s how to spot passive voice …
1. If you can ask "By whom?" or "By what?" after the verb, then the verb is in the passive voice.
EXAMPLE: "The car was driven by Megan."
The car was driven BY WHOM? By Megan. So that sentence is in passive voice.
EXAMPLE: "The majority of tourists, relying on the information in the brochures, had been led to believe that the best place to eat was right there on the pier at the obtrusive fish place with the neon sign."
The tourists had been led to believe that BY WHAT? By the information in the brochures. So that sentence is in passive voice.
2. A sure sign of passive voice is any form of the verb "to be" — PLUS — the past participle of a main verb.
EXAMPLES OF VERBS IN PASSIVE VOICE:
* was carried
* were removed
* must be reserved
* has been lost
* will be located
EXAMPLE: "The baggage WAS CARRIED to the room by the bell boy."
EXAMPLE: "There is nothing more frustrating on a trip than discovering that your luggage HAS BEEN LOST."
Fortunately, it’s not difficult to eliminate passive voice from your writing. Below are four sure-fire ways to make sure your sentences are passive-free and therefore easier to read and more effective.
1. Use "you" … and passive voice disappears. Talk to your reader.
PASSIVE: "Good hotel recommendations are to be found at the tourist office at the top of the hill."
ACTIVE: "You will find good hotel recommendations at the tourist office at the top of the hill."
2. Put the actor before the verb.
PASSIVE: "When deadlines are met by the writers, they are paid on time by the editors."
ACTIVE: "When the writers meet deadlines, the editors pay them on time."
3. Delete part of the verb.
PASSIVE: "The school was opened ten years ago."
ACTIVE: "The school opened ten years ago."
4. Use a different verb.
PASSIVE: "Our conversation will be kept confidential."
ACTIVE: "Our conversation will remain confidential."
Writing about Panama’s Bocas del Toro, John Mitchell uses active voice in this lead paragraph and throughout the article:
"It’s a kidney-pounding ride aboard the high-powered water taxi that leaves Almirante on the Panamanian mainland. The trip takes 45 minutes and through most of it, the middle-aged American woman sitting next to me is clenching the boat’s gunwale, eyes tightly shut. A squall comes out of nowhere to engulf the boat and we’re suddenly blinded by sheets of rain. When the deluge finally lifts, we’re gliding cross a glassy green sea at sunset, past low-slung mangroves toward our destination: the town of Bocas del Toro on the tip of Isla Colon."
And here’s a selection from a hotel review in which the writer speaks directly to his reader using "you" and banishing passive voice:
"Accra Beach Hotel and Resort boasts a handsome stock of all the above on Accra Beach, the prettiest on the south coast. You’ll receive your first helping of hospitality at the registration desk, where staff attitudes are as sunny and welcoming as the broad-arched view of the Caribbean’s endless blue waters, which are visible from the lobby."
Now it’s your turn …
Improve the following 8 sentences by rewriting them to eliminate the passive voice. How? Use "you," put the actor before the verb, delete part of the verb, or use a different verb entirely.
1. More artistic masterpieces can be found within the neighborhood of the Prado Museum than anywhere else.
2. Breathtaking seascapes and exotic tropical landscapes are offered by Palm Island Resort for the discriminating traveler to indulge in and behold.
3. Opportunities for challenging tours, treks, and hikes for nature-lovers — not to mention awe-inspiring views — are offered by Pico Duarte, the highest peak in the Caribbean.
4. In shipboard spas, the finest in European-style treatments can be experienced while cruising the world.
5. Particular attention has been lavished on the Silver State’s range of accommodations.
6. It’s more likely to be upgraded by a reservations agent to an empty suite at 8 p.m. than at 4 p.m. when bookings are still coming in.
7. I was met at the dock by Caesar Banks, a grizzled gentleman of great humor and considerable presence.
8. Undisturbed beaches and historic sites waiting to be explored will be delighted in.
(Jen Stevens is the editor of AWAI’s "Passport to Romance: The Ultimate Travel Writer’s Course." For more information about this program, visit http://www.agora-inc.com/reports/twcr/awaionline.)
SPECIAL MESSAGE FROM DON MAHONEY
Jen Stevens, a professional editor, copywriter, and travel writer, will be conducting a Fundamentals of Good Writing workshop at AWAI’s FastTrack to Success Copywriting Bootcamp in Delray Beach, FL Sept. 19-22, 2001.
This "crash course" in basic writing will teach you secrets for communicating powerfully and effectively. You’ll learn the secret of writing the perfect sentence, how to choose the RIGHT word for every situation, how to make your copy connect with your reader, plus much more.
Go to http://www.awaionline.com/Fast%20Track%202001.pdf for details on how you can register for the bootcamp. Spaces are limited.
HOW TO GET UNSTUCK WHEN A BIG JOB STYMIES YOU
By Michael Masterson
When you agreed to do it, it seemed like a wonderful challenge. Now, your deadline is fast approaching and you haven’t even started. Getting the job done is a priority, yet it somehow doesn’t happen. Instead, it stays there on your daily task list – highlighted for attention but never attended to.
What causes this pernicious process? Why does a great opportunity turn into a very big chore that turns into an overwhelming enigma that threatens to turn into the Big Job You Never Even Started?
There are all sorts of causes — but only one solution that consistently works for me. Here it is:
1. If you have been stuck for more than three days, you are stuck. Admit it. Stand in front of the mirror and repeat: "I shot my mouth off. I’m stuck." You have been waiting for inspiration to save you, but it hasn’t appeared. Stop waiting.
2. Change the status of the job: It was one priority among many. Make it No.1 on your daily task list.
3. Don’t even think of attacking the whole mess at once. Instead, break it up into small pieces. If it’s a 40-page report you have to write, break it up into pages. If it’s a bunch of people you have to
talk to, think of each conversation as a separate task.
4. Working back from your deadline, figure how many discrete units (pages, people, etc.) you need to do each day. Then, figure out how long it will take you to do that many units.
5. If each unit can be done in less than 15 minutes, you are in luck. Give yourself the job of doing just one 15-minute task each day. If you will have to spend more than 15 minutes a day to finish, then begin — still — with 15 minutes and gradually increase your daily time commitment as you get rolling.
6. Start with 15 minutes. Start immediately. Do your 15 minutes even if you feel that what you are doing is not very good.
7. Keep going until you break through the psychological barrier you’ve been up against.
The secret here is to reduce each day’s work to 15 minutes. It is such a small amount of time that you won’t have any trouble doing it. This will get the ball rolling, even if it doesn’t seem to be rolling in the right direction. Sooner or later — and this is guaranteed — you will suddenly get that inspiration you had been waiting for while you were stuck. And when it happens, you will find that you’ve already done a good deal of the grunt work (thinking, planning, research, whatever).
My brother, JJF, recommended this technique several years ago. He’s used it to get big writing projects done. I’ve used it for writing, planning, research, and especially critiquing. It has never failed me.
It’s particularly useful when you get to the point where you don’t actually like a project anymore. In that case, unless you have the discipline to hack away at it every day, you will avoid it, and it will never get done.
Some days, you will want to work more than 15 minutes. That’s fine. In fact, that’s the idea. It means your creative mind is starting to kick in. One day — and this can happen at almost any time — you’ll suddenly see the big picture and will be able to get the whole project done right. You may decide to scrap some of what you’ve been doing and change some of it — but from that point on, you’ll work fast and easily because you’ll know exactly what needs to be done.
Now you can start every business day with success strategies from Michael Masterson. For details, go to http://www.earlytorise.com/awai
Quite frequently, we get e-mails and calls from students asking questions or addressing concerns about different aspects of copywriting. We’d like to start including some of these questions and their answers in The Golden Thread Online.
If you’d like to submit a question, simply e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org with "ASK THE MASTERS" in the subject line. Keep in mind that your comments — in whole or in part — may appear in upcoming issues.
HOW MASTERS STUDENT BETH ERICKSON FINDS NEW CLIENTS
(Beth’s suggestions were featured in her e-letter, Writing Etc., For information on how you can sign up to receive Writing Etc go to http://www.filbertpublishing.com)
So how do you pick up freelance clients? Easy. Good writers are in demand, especially as the economy softens. Companies need writers that get results. And if your copywriting pulls in responses, you’ll get work.
Here are a few suggestions:
1. To start attracting clients, run a small ad in your local paper. As your expertise increases, place more ads in surrounding area papers. Maybe you’ll want to write a snappy classified ad in the business section.
3. Join your local Chamber of Commerce. You’ll meet the movers and shakers in your community and make invaluable contacts.
4. Send out a direct mail piece. I use a quarterly newsletter and it never fails to turn up something. You can write a sales letter complete with a reply form and buckslip, or you can keep it simple.
5. Set goals each day. Decide how many queries you’ll send out — and then keep to your schedule. Sending one, three, five, or ten letters daily keeps the work flowing in at a consistent rate. (I’ve read that it takes a minimum of SEVEN exposures to your ad or sales materials before a client will respond.)
7. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. If you’re a stringer for your local newspaper, ask the editor if it’s possible for them to run a small ad promoting your copywriting business. If you already have local clients, ask them to recommend your writing services to their friends.
8. If you have nerves of steel, you can call cold call perspective clients. I don’t have nerves of steel so I haven’t done that — yet. But I don’t rule anything out until I’ve tried it once.
The possibilities are endless — and that’s why this job is so great. The trick is to always have lots of irons in the fire. Find out what works for you … and then run with it.
(If you’d like to share ideas for finding clients with Beth and other fellow AWAI students, sign up for our FastTrack to Success Bootcamp. Beth will be there! http://www.awaionline.com/Fast%20Track%202001.pdf)
COMING NEXT ISSUE:
* Secrets of a Master: John Forde on The Power of Social Proof
* Elements of a Strong Guarantee: The Three R’s
* Meet Guaranteed Success Student Desmond Flemming
* ABOUT THE GOLDEN THREAD ONLINE *
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© 2001 American Writers & Artists Inc.
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