Passive and Active Voice: Why Most People Suck at Writing Articles

 

AC.Byrd.E.001 Richard E. Byrd

AC.Byrd.E.001 Richard E. Byrd (Photo credit: San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives)

And how to fix it!

OK, so maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but you know what I mean. Some people can put sentences together. Other people can write. It’s not the same thing. Grammar has rules, but writing is so much more. Writing is about rhyme and rhythm, it’s an art, and like all art, it’s about the effect it has on the consumer.

Most people recognize good writing when they read it, but because they assume writing is all about the rules of grammar and spelling, they think they should be able to do the same thing. The rules are easy. All you have to do is follow them.

The only problem is, it isn’t true, but we’ll get back to that.

My point is that a lot of people are dissatisfied with the standard of their own writing, but they needn’t be. There are three basic problems with the way most people approach writing, and all are easy to fix.

  1. Their writing is correct in every way, but stilted in style.
  2. Their subject is boring
  3. They expect too much.

An article isn’t a lecture and it’s not an academic paper. It’s a promotional tool. It won’t win a Pullitzer no matter how many weeks, days or hours your spend on it. A lot of people start writing in a formal style and the result is something that sounds stilted, just like an academic paper, but this isn’t a conference, this is the web.  What you need is something  informative, easy to read and friendly. Formal is right out.

The major difference between formal and informal writing is the use of passive language. If you spend any time reading about how to write for the web you’ll know that the best advice is to use something called the active voice—but what does that mean?
The bottom line is that if you write in what’s called the active voice you’ll sound more friendly and a lot less pompous. Writing which uses passive forms always sounds more formal because the sentences are put together in a way which is quite different to the way we would say them.

Warning – you may want to slip this bit ‘cos I’m going to talk about subjects, objects and verbs and stuff. Just skip down to the next bit of highlighted text.

Here’s a sample:

Admiral Byrd flew over the South Pole

is the normal way to tell someone about Admiral Byrd’s exploits back in 1934. It’s a nice simple sentence. Subject?  Admiral Byrd. Verb? To fly. Object? The South Pole.

But if, rather than speaking, you were writing about Admiral Byrd in an Academic paper, you might say 

‘The flight over the South Pole was carried out by Admiral Byrd’

Subject? The flight over the South Pole. Verb? To carry out. Object? Admiral Byrd.

A nice dynamic verb like ‘flew’ is downgraded to  ‘carried out.’  and all the excitement of the event disappears. Of course the first version is factual nonsense, unless Admiral Byrd suddenly grew wings, but factual or not, it is what you would say, and for the web, that’s more appropriate. If your writing is boring (and you don’t think it should be) take a look at the verbs.  You can do a lot with verbs. Honest.

In passive sentences it is the thing which is receiving the action which is the subject of the sentence.

The children were educated by a tutor. Subject – the children
A tutor educated the children. Subject?  A tutor.
The second is the active form.

But you don’t want to know that. What’s important, is how you fix the problem, and the good news is that it’s easy.

Welcome back 🙂

Write what you think you would say. Use contractions.  And start sentences with ‘and’ or ‘but’. Break the rules you were taught in school and your writing will be more natural and contain more of your personality.

But don’t go too far. Sentences with, like, too many, like, ‘likes’ in, might be less than clear, man!

Practice speaking your articles (you could even use text to speech software) or just imagine, as you write, that you’re talking to a good friend; what you write will be more natural, more you and much easier to read.

Think also about what you’re saying. If you approach the exercise from the customer/reader point of view, trying to provide information the customer or reader wants to have, the result will be better. If you’re an expert at what you do you probably know what your reader needs to know, but does your reader? There are always a lot more people who dabble in a subject, think about getting started, try it out for a while, and never ever go into depth, than become informed. There are a lot more people looking for basic information about any subject, than there are looking for detailed, expert help.

You may know how to overcome the difficulties of underwater basket weaving, but your reader doesn’t want to know that, they want to know the simple things; what is it, what tools do I need, is it expensive, does it take long, is it fun, can I make money with it.  By all means publish articles for those who need in depth knowledge, but remember that most of your readers probably don’t.

Accept that you are not perfect. Proof reading is something you must do, but it need not go on for days. One good way to check for typos  is to start at the end of your article and work backwards. Because the sentences don’t make sense that way round it’s easier for your brain to spot misspelled words. When reading forwards you’ll often read what you expect to see rather than what is actually there. And if you publish an article with a typographical error? Too many and the article may be rejected by a directory, so you revise it and submit again. The sky does not fall. Perfection is not required.

If you find yourself agonizing over the precise construction of one particular sentence, get rid of it and move on. Practice is important, so get the articles out there and invite feedback. You learn by doing.

So what’s the main reason people suck at writing articles? Well, to go back to what I was saying right at the beginning, sometimes the problem  is practice. You won’t get better by theorizing. You’re not a writer until you write.

So what ever your problem is, don’t let it hold you back. Get it written, get it out there. Take a good hard look, and do better next time. Procrastination is not just the thief of time, it’s a death sentence for success.

Never procrastinate today, always put it off until tomorrow.

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Article Rejection by Ezine Articles: Goran’s Story

Article rejection by ezine articles

Image by BOMBTWINZ via Flickr

A few days ago I wrote an post about one of my articles being rejected by ezine. It was embarrassing, but I fixed it.

Goran commented on my post and said he had a similar problem; his articles had been rejected because they did not comply with ezines editorial guideline 1e.

MUST HAVE proper English, spelling, grammar, punctuation, capitalization and sentence structure. While we know there is a variation in what is considered “proper English,” we ask that you at least be consistent within your article. Your article must also be proofed and double checked for accuracy. If English is your second language, we strongly suggest that you have it proofed by someone who has English as their native tongue before submitting your articles to us.

Goran, like many on the Internet, is not a native English speaker, but when we chatted he told me he had run the articles through both Grammarly and WhiteSmoke without problems, so he was puzzled – why would Ezine Articles turn him down? I agreed to take a look if he would let me write about the result, and so here we are, this is Goran’s story.

The problem is pretty clear straight away. The article Goran sent me is talking about the scents used in tanning lotions – his title is

‘Can Fragrances in Tanning Lotion Be Digitalized?’

No, Goran, they can’t, because digitalised isn’t the word you were looking for. You wanted a word which meant ‘converted to digital form’. That word is digitised (or digitized if you are American and like ‘z’) Digitalised is a word, but what it means is

to administer digitoxin or digoxin to (a patient) for the treatment of certain heart disorders

and that is the limitation of many ‘checking’ programs, they can validate the words, but they have no idea whether the words you use are the same as the words you mean.

But that’s not the only problem for poor old Goran. The words are fine, but the use of the language is quite wrong; for example, Goran often uses the word ‘Internet’, nothing wrong with that of course, except that in English we don’t say ‘this serious shortcoming of Internet’ we say ‘this serious shortcoming of the Internet’ . Why?  It’s geographical.

Usually, we use ‘the’ (the definite article), to distinguish between a particular object ‘the book’ as opposed to any object ‘a book’ but in the case of the Internet, we are using the definite article in a different almost geographical way, just as we say,’The Nile’, or ‘The North Pole’, or ‘The Pacific’, we say ‘The Internet’. In English, the Internet is not a thing, it is a place.

The problems with Goran’s article all boil down to the same thing. The words are fine, but the language isn’t. He needs to learn how to write in English, or  to have his articles fixed by someone with a more detailed knowledge of iodiomatic English, if he wants to have them accepted by ezine.

Is this wrong? Clearly, from Goran’s point of view, it is a pest, and I am sorry he is having the problem, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable of ezine to want to have the right words used, and in the right way. It is unfortunate that the burden falls most heavily on those who don’t have English as their first language, but we live in a multi-language world. If I want to sell in France I need to sell in French.

What do you think?

Here’s ‘Gary’ from ezinearticles.com to explain what they are looking for.

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Article Rejection: What To Do When You Feel Foolish.

[ rejected ]

[ rejected ] (Photo credit: [ changó ])

So, it finally happened.

One of my articles was rejected. By ezinearticles.com.

It’s the first time, ever and boy, do I feel foolish!

Of course it wasn’t an article I wrote for myself. No, that would be too easy. It was an article I wrote for a client. I’ve written all this stuff on how to write and to avoid article rejection and then it happens to me.

So foolish probably doesn’t cover it. Ashamed is closer to the mark.

But wait.

Maybe it’s not me that’s at fault. Maybe it’s ezine. Maybe, they’ve just become too particular. After all, they’re an internet article directory, not the Pulitzer committee. (Is there a Pulitzer committee?)

Have you had an article rejected and thought that really, there was nothing wrong with it, that the article was fine and the rejection unjust?

I’ll admit the thought crossed my mind.

But there are a couple of really important questions you need to answer about article rejection.

1. Did they give a reason? If so what was it?

2. Were they right.

You need to get the article and read it through. So what was the reason my article was rejected?

The body of the article failed to deliver on the title.

What?

Let’s check the title.

Organic Beauty Products: Three Things to Avoid When Shopping

Now lets check the text.

Does it, in fact mention three things to avoid when shopping?

Well, yes, but what it doesn’t do, is list them. They’re not numbered.

So maybe, just maybe,  ezine is right. I probably broke one of my own rules and didn’t write an outline for the article.

It has taken no  more than a couple of minutes to fix. I added numbered points which made the points crystal clear.

Of course I could have modified the title, but ezine don’t seem to be able to cope with that and it can cause more problems, so just numbering the points and giving each one a subhead was a simple, quick fix.

In the last couple of months I’ve heard a lot of people complain about ezine.  People say they’ve gone over the top, that they’ve become too choosy, that they reject things without reason. Others, think the change in standards is a good thing.

All I can say is, that wasn’t the case for me. Ezine were right and I was wrong and I should have known better. I’ve learned from the experience.

Do you feel ezinearticles.com are tightening their requirements? If so, what do you think about it? Is it a bad thing to want less fluff on the internet?

Please leave a comment.

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How to Write A Synopsis or Summary

Cover of "Twilight (Twilight, Book 1)"

Cover of Twilight (Twilight, Book 1)

There are several reasons to write a synopsis. If you plan to write a book or film, you will send a synopsis to your agent or potential publisher. If you are being hired to write a book or ebook, your client will want to see a synopsis, and, if you want to write a book, poem or film review, a synopsis is usually the first part.

It’s useful to know how to write a synopsis because for writers, they crop up all over the place.

1. A synopsis covers the whole of the book. You don’t leave out the ending when you are sending to a publisher or client. You usually leave out the ending in a review.

2. A synopsis is always told from the ‘God’s eye, omniscient view.

3. Synopses need to be written well, to move the plot along and engage the reader.

4. Synopses are relatively short, and need not cover points in the same order at the book/film/course itself.

So, does this mean you wouldn’t write a synopses for a factual book?

Not at all.

Does this mean that a synopsis and an outline are much the same?

Again, not at all.

A synopsis is very similar to a summary, but where you’d write a summary of something relatively short, like an article or a report, a synopsis is usually created from something longer, like a film or a book. A synopsis is short, an outline, on the other hand, is usually a detailed blueprint, often many pages long.

An outline is a plan.

A synopsis or summary is more of a sales document, designed to create interest.

A client, publisher or agent may ask to see both, but the synopsis always comes first.

A high school student, Bella, moves to a different part of the country where she meets an exceptionally handsome and mysterious young man, Edward, who turns out to be  a vampire. They are attracted to each other, but whenever he is with her, Edward has to fight the desire to feed. Despite this, their relationship grows as Bella, discovers that Edward and his family feed on animals and not on humans. Her association with Edward puts her in danger when a new Vampire family, with more traditional eating habits, visits the neighborhood  and decides that Bella would make an excellent meal. The vampire chases Bella across the US, eventually corners her and bites. Edward is able to resist his desire to feed on her blood and sucks the vampire venom from her body. Bella recovers, but when they return to school she asks Edward why he did not allow her to become a Vampire so they could be together forever, but Edward says this is not something he could allow to happen.

A synopsis of  the best selling romance ‘Twilight‘ is relatively short. An outline, would set out what happens in the book chapter by chapter.  For a more direct contrast checkout the twilight outline file which sets out the action of the film, scene by scene, running to a total of 29 pages.

So, if a synopsis is very different to an outline, what should it contain?

When you are sending the synopsis to an agent or publisher, it should contain everything, the who, the what, they why, they when and the where. It should be short, but well written. The appeal of the story should be clear, and although the end is revealed, the sources of tension and conflict should be clear.

When the synopsis is for publication, it should be careful to create questions in the readers mind and not reveal the ending.

But what is the synopsis describes a factual book?

In this case the book will provide information. If the book is a ‘how to’ then the synopsis should discuss the task at hand and why it is useful to be able to complete it, or  why it is especially useful to complete in the way the book describes, e.g. particularly quickly, or to a budget. A book called ‘The budget guide to wedding flowers’ might have a synopsis which reads something like this.

Every bride wants a beautiful wedding, but few can spend unlimited amounts and costs seem to increase every year.  The’ Budget Guide to Wedding Flowers’ describes hundreds of ways to save money on the floral arrangements and bouquets you need, from the best sources of wholesale fresh or silk flowers, to ideas for do it yourself table centerpieces and simple ways to create stunning, hand crafted wedding bouquets. This guide will help you plan the flowers for the wedding of your dreams, no matter how tiny your budget.

Look closely and you’ll see similar  elements, the synopsis makes it clear who will find the book useful (brides) why it is useful (to help save money) what they’ll get (useful ideas, sources and instructions) and where and when it will be useful (at the wedding of their dreams).   What it doesn’t give away is any of the information, you have to buy the book to get that!

Many authors find it useful to create the synopsis for a book and keep it, clipped to their notes, or taped to their screen as they go, just to keep them on track. Boiled down to its essentials, it can be easier to see the intended audience for your book and keep them in mind as you write.

For non fiction as much as for fiction, it’s not about what you want to write. It’s about what your readers want to read.

 

 

 

 

 

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How To Give Advice in an Article

Beauty Dish

Beauty Dish (Photo credit: hambers)

What do you do when you have to write an article with an impossible deadline? I’ve had some strange requests in the last few months, including a couple where the deadline was in one hour. You don’t want to make a habit of accepting impossible deadlines, but there are times when it’s really useful to be able to come up with a good, informative article very quickly. Once of the simplest is the ‘advice’ article.

The format is simple, just think of any ‘agony’ column you know. You state the question and then give the answer. An advice article is very like a ‘solution’ article, but with an advice article you typically answer more than one question. The more you know about the subject, the easier it is to write the article.

Take your keywords or niche, and go to somewhere where people ask questions. If there are major forums in your niche, that’s a good place to start. If you don’t know where to go, try something very general like Yahoo Answers. Let’s take a topic I worked on last week, natural beauty products.

If you visit Yahoo Answers and type in ‘organic beauty products’ you’ll see a lot of questions pop up. I was expecting to find questions about hows and whys; why are natural beauty products good, how are they different, that sort of thing.

What I learned was that many of the questions weren’t about buying natural beauty products, they were about starting a beauty products business. Useful to know, that gave me a whole new set of ideas for artice topics.

The Process

Select at least three questions which are somehow related. I found ‘What is the point of using organic beauty products’, ‘what are the best places to buy organic beauty products online’, ‘are organic beauty products safe’.  By answering all three questions I could create a single advice article, ‘Organic Beauty Products: Your Questions Answered’ or I could develop each one into a ‘list’ article, ‘Organic Beauty Products: The Ten Best Places to Buy Online‘, ‘Organic Beauty Products:  Five Reasons to Go Green‘, ‘Organic Beauty Products: Are They Safe?

Why would I choose the advice article over the others? It depends on the quality of the answers. If I’m trying to write quickly, I don’t have time to research. I want good quality questions I can answer myself, or that already have good answers. All I have to do is to put the facts in my own words.

But why should I bother? The questions and answers are here. Why can’t I write my article even faster by just cutting and pasting the text?

As a writer you’re paid to produce original content. Any decent article directory will check to see if the content already exists on the web. If you copy the text your article will be rejected and you will lose a client. It’s not just a faster way to write, it’s a very fast way to mess up. If you are writing for yourself, the choice is yours. Google says original content is best.

So, take your three questions and answers, rewrite them in your own words, and if you know more, flesh out the answers.

The Introduction

Every article should start with a WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) section. Why would your reader want the answers to these questions? The answer depends on the questions, but will usually center around a benefit.  Try to find one that saves money, pain or time. Write a short paragraph, maybe 100 words, which explains

  1. what your reader will learn from the article and
  2. why that information is useful, i.e. which one (or all) of money, pain or time can be saved.

Knowing where to buy online saves you time. Knowing if and why products are safe as well as why you should go green can save pain.

The WIIIFM paragraph is the intrduction to your article.

Now write a conclusion, again 75 words or so, which restates (but does not repeat) the introduction. Remind your reader why they read and what they are now able to do/save as a result.

Add an appropriate article summary and resource box and your’re done.

You can use the same method to produce blog posts. Once you know what sort of person reads your blog, you can pick questions they would ask, you can even ask them for their questions, and perhaps post a regular ‘advice’ post on a weekly or monthly basis.

Use this method and you’ll find that advice articles can be written quickly and easily. As a writer you need to balance competing needs. Your clients want informative articles filled with useful information, but they also want them fast. Advice articles help you satisfy both requirements.

If you’re not sure how to put together a good resource box, here’s a video to show you how.

 

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How To Write Good Articles for Article Marketing

Articles and article marketing seem to be one of the hardest aspects of promoting a website. As an e-store owner I struggled with it, until I began to understand that it was possible to take a very wide view of the subject.

When I began to write for other people, I found that articles were highest of their list of needs, so I spent several months writing nothing but articles for the directories on many different subjects.

I like to work in batches because to be honest the time it takes to research an article about a new subject means it isn’t cost effective to write single articles, unless they’re on a subject you know well.

The first ten articles are pretty easy. The client is delighted that he or she didn’t have to do the writing, or come up with the subject.

The second ten articles, much the same, but it is getting difficult to find new facts.

The third ten articles can be torture if your client doesn’t realize that you can cast a pretty wide net in terms of subject matter, and in my experience, most clients don’t.

So what do I mean?

One client who comes immediately to mind is Thor’s CB Radio, you might recall them from a case study post I  wrote a while ago. Thor’s is pretty ideal as clients go, they understand what they are doing.

The first articles I wrote for Thor’s were all about CB radio. What it was, how to use it, who invented it etc. Then we moved further to the differences between CB radio and other amateur radio types, and then we looked at cases studies where radio communications (not always CB radio) had made a life or death difference.

But you can go a lot wider, and we did.

Think about the people who buy CB radio, or the people who should buy CB radio, and what it can do for them.

There are people who buy radios for cars, people who buy radios for boats, and people who buy hand held radios for hiking trips. This means an endless number of articles about boat trips, car trips, RV sightseeing, and hikes. The articles are actually about travel and leisure, but somewhere there will be a line or two which mentions that it’s good to stay in touch for safety reasons, and many of the most scenic areas of the USA are remote and have no reliable cellphone coverage, making radio virtually essential to a safe trip.

By including just a sentence or two, mentioning your product and tying it to the subject of the article, you make it clear to the editors of the directory that your resource box links (to the CB radio site) are relevant (if they’re not your article will be rejected), and you provide a useful prompt for readers. You article is likely to be picked up by a blog or ezine publisher in a leisure niche, and these are the people you want to see your marketing message.

In other words, taking a wide view of your subject, in this case writing about hiking rather than about CB radio itself, is actually better from a marketing standpoint. Who reads articles about CB radio? Mostly people who are already enthusiasts and hence already have the equipment they need. Casting the net wider, to boat owners, drivers, RV owners and hikers you are more likely to find those you perhaps have already had communication problems when relying on their cellphone, and are actively interested in the alternative.

Some clients never understand this. One, who shall remain nameless, asked me to write about a certain type of outdoor product. I proposed articles about gardening, each one to mention how the product could be a useful addition, but the client wanted articles tightly focused on the product.

Of course the client is always right.

But the truth is, if you take that approach, there is only so much you can write before you repeat yourself and end up writing fluff, your clients won’t like it, Google won’t like it, and believe me, you won’t like it. It’s boring.

One way to keep creating new an original content, is to be familiar with a number of article types.
As a beginner, most gurus will suggest you write ‘list articles’ and there are lots of good reasons to do so, but there are many other approaches you can use to write about a subject, learn how to write them and the knowledge will help work quickly tocome up with a lot of ideas for articles and blog posts, something which is especially useful when you are putting together a content plan or forward features calendar.

The remainder of this series of articles is all about the different articles types, what they are, and how and when to write them.

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