Good freelance writing requires that you choose a voice for your message or narrative.
Voice refers to the relationship between two particular components of each sentence – the verb and the subject.
OK, let me be right up front with you here. I hate grammar lessons. I started writing professionally 40 years ago and, to this very day, I know next to nothing when it comes to language mechanics.
For instance, ask me to explain the difference between a noun and a pronoun. In response you hear the sound of crickets.
I bet, though, you can tell the difference because you’re a good freelance writer. (Oooh, did you like the way I sneaked the keyword phrase in there? No? You think I harmed the dignity of the profession by doing that? Well, we can talk about SEO another day, my good freelance writer friend. For now, let’s stick with the topic at hand.)
So, anyway, as I was saying, I hate grammar lessons, and I am determined not to get all technical on you here. That said, I still need to explain this business of voice and its importance.
Up until this sentence, nearly every line I uttered used “active voice.” Dictionary.com defines active voice as a situation where the subject performs an act. Example:
“Joe parked the car.”
Dictionary.com defines passive voice as a situation where the verb acts on the subject. Example:
“The car was parked by Joe.”
Dictionary.com adds that “it is usually preferable to use the active voice wherever possible, because it gives a sense of immediacy to the sentence.”
I completely agree. That sense of immediacy gets readers of good freelance writing turned on and begging for more.
Granted, there is a time and place for passive voice (like in this sentence). One place it works poorly: a press release.
Let me show you what I mean. This morning, I grabbed two press releases hot off the wires. One used active voice. The other used passive. Passive first:
You may know The Savings Bank Life Insurance Company of Massachusetts (SBLI) as the company that has provided generations of families with affordable, dependable life insurance and annuities. Now, SBLI is going above and beyond by offering a product to customers which they can use long after they’ve purchased their coverage.
Now the one with active voice:
Synagro today requested a building permit to develop its Slate Belt Heat Recovery Center tying directly into the Green Knight Energy Center and within the township’s solid waste zone….Synagro expects to spend up to $26 million constructing the facility.
Basically, your sentences speak in passive voice if they contain the words “has,” “was,” or “is.” You need to use those constructs sparingly if you want your readers to really engage with your writing.
So, a tip of the hat to the folks at Synagro for speaking in active voice.
Meanwhile, Savings Bank Life Insurance Company of Massachusetts must see me after class. I want to show them how to convert passive voicing into the active form of it.
Heck, let me just demonstrate it now in front of everyone.
RICH SMITH SUGGESTED REWRITE:
Known for providing affordable, dependable life insurance and annuities to generations of families, The Savings Bank Life Insurance Company of Massachusetts (SBLI) now goes above and beyond by offering a product designed for use long after the purchase of coverage.
In addition to giving crisper tone and pacing, this active voice conversion also makes the key points of this narrative much more accessible to readers.
That’s really important, so let it sink in. Accessibility to information counts for everything in writing.
BOTTOM LINE: Use active voice in your freelance writing whenever possible. Use passive voice sparingly. Active voice commands reader interest and encourages engagement (plus sparks action) better than passive voice.
A bad freelance writer is one who spels words incorectly.
Freelance writurs who make typoz or who make garmatical erors on there werk are deserving of all the ridicule that can be muster on thim.
What’s that you say? I’m a hypocrite because you spotted spelling and grammar mistakes in this post, and here I am telling you that you stink as a freelance writer for making spelling and grammar errors? You say you’ve never been angrier?
Well, then, just imagine how your freelance writing clients feel when you deliver copy riddled with defects.
I’ll save you the energy required to imagine it by revealing that your spelling and grammar errors make them angrier than you felt a minute ago when you saw all my spelling and grammar errors and decided I was a hypocrite (which, naturally, I am, so congratulations to you for being such a perceptive person).
I know spelling and grammar errors make freelance writing clients mad because I’ve upset many of my own peeps by turning in less-than pristine product time and again.
Having been guilty of multiple counts of this crime myself, I’m perfectly positioned to tell you why spelling errors and grammar mistakes don’t get corrected before the client receives your work.
There are three reasons. They are:
I’m tempted to add ignorance to the list, but let’s not go there. Anyone smart enough to be a freelance writer isn’t likely a dodo when it comes to spelling. Unless you’re me.
So let’s go through the three reasons cited above, one by one.
You get to the end of the assignment, you bang out the final word, you lay down the ending punctuation mark. You’re done. That’s all, folks. The body-positivity lady has sung. Put your feet up on the desk.
The last thing you want to do now is go back to the beginning of the story and read it with an eye toward catching all the mistakes that are guaranteed to be in there, even though you had your spell-checker or grammar-fixer software running live as you wrote.
You want nothing more at this point than to pack up this story and ship it over to the client. Being done is gratifying. Lifting not a finger more is heavenly.
But you’re not done – and should take no gratification or pleasure – until you’ve double- or even triple-checked your work for accuracy of spelling and grammar.
If you don’t feel like doing it right away, it’s OK to put it off until tomorrow (unless you’re right up against the deadline).
In fact, if you do have the luxury of time, you should put off your copy proofing until morning for the reason that you’ll be looking at your story with fresh eyes. You’ll be amazed at how many mistakes you catch in a piece you thought perfect at bedtime if you edit it after an overnight break. You’ll spot other things too, such as choppiness of transitions, flaws in organization, and weaknesses in sentence construction (those that cause the reader to abandon the story because they’ve been confronted with an impenetrable word jumble).
This is a problem when you do a Sonic the Hedgehog impersonation to speed you through the assignment.
Maybe you hate the assignment and want to wash your hands of it ASAP, so you race to complete it. In the process, you make spelling and grammar mistakes – and don’t really care because your magical thinking leads you to believe the client will be glad to receive it in whatever shape you submit it.
Maybe you’ve got other, higher-value freelance writing projects clamoring for your attention, so you dash this one out in order to attend to those awaiting you in the queue.
Or maybe in a classic Rich Smith move you goofed off for the first 14 days of a 15-day deadline and now, suddenly, the due date is at hand. If you had started the project when or soon after you received it, you wouldn’t now be in this bind. But here you are, racing to play catch-up. The ensuing haste is bound to make waste.
It’s possible that you’re submitting work with mistakes in it because you’ve completely convinced yourself that you were sufficiently careful as you typed.
I’ve done that one. A lot. And am endlessly surprised to see how many goofs that I was sure I wasn’t making were actually made.
I can’t stress this enough. It doesn’t matter how careful you think you are being as you assemble the product. You are going to make spelling and grammatical mistakes.
Also, don’t put total confidence in your real-time spell-checker to keep your copy mistake free. You may have noticed that it doesn’t catch all the misspelled words. This is especially true of homonyms – words that sound identical but have different meanings and, hence, different spellings. The problem is your spell-checker may not be able to figure out from the context of your writing which of two or more possible meanings you intend.
Bottom line: you should make it a habit to carefully review your freelance writing copy for spelling and grammar errors. Take your time in working through the text – proceed word by word, line by line. This is important because clients don’t like receiving work pockmarked by typos and grammar errors.
Freelance writers looking for work – you’ll improve your chances of being hired and making the client happy if you write sentences short and sweet.
I don’t care if it’s your resume or a proposal or what have you. It needs to be brisk and breezy. You do that by writing as few words as possible to get your point across.
That’s not to say you can’t toss a long sentence into the mix here and there. You can – and you should – to enliven the pace.
In the main, though, write tight.
Do that, and you help ensure your message – in whatever form it takes – gets read and has impact.
With a press release, for example, your goal is to both inform and persuade. Encouraging readers to stay with your narrative, start to finish, and to accept your framing of the message requires crisp and understandable writing.
The best way to be crisp and understandable is by keeping your foot off the gas.
Gas in a sentence is bad news. What do I mean by “gas”? Gas is any extraneous words you plop into a sentence.
Some freelance writers hit the gas to pad the length of their sentences. The more gas, the higher the total word count of the completed piece.
That can be helpful if you have little to actually say and need to impress the client or the search engine, but it’s otherwise counterproductive from a reader persuasion standpoint.
Other freelance writers pump gas to give the appearance of greater erudition. Consider: which of these two sentences sounds brainier?
“See Dick and Jane run.”
“With proper and well-focused visualization, it is possible to observe the multivariate rates at which two citizens of the world, the charming and delightful Jane and her loyal but unfortunately-named companion Dick, engage in a peculiar form of locomotion, with concomitant increases in respiratory, heart, and biomechanical load.”
But which of these two sentences are you more likely to read to the end and readily understand? I thought so.
(OK, just to be fair, sentence No. 2 was something I once heard Mr. Spock say to Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy on the way to the transporter room during an episode of the original “Star Trek” series.)
Anyhoo, where was I? Oh, yes. Reasons why some freelance writers gasify their sentences.
I’m A Lazy Slob
The third reason is one I’m guilty of: putting gas in sentences because you’re an undisciplined lazy slob and it’s just easier that way.
Let me show you what I mean about gas in sentences.
I pulled a press release a few minutes ago from the free distribution service PR.com. It was issued by a company called Hubb. They make software for simplifying the management of big meetings.
Here’s the lede graf.
“Hubb is proud to announce that CEO Allie Magyar has been named a 2017 Smart Women in Meetings Awards winner. Designed to honor and celebrate all women in the meetings industry, The Smart Women in Meetings Awards recognizes the industry’s top female meeting professionals in five prestigious categories including Industry Leaders, Innovators, Entrepreneurs, Doers, and Rising Stars.”
PROBLEM: Gasification. I have identified the following 24 words (in order of use) as unnecessary to tell this story:
1. is proud
3. has been named
4. Designed to honor and celebrate all women in the meetings industry, The Smart Women in Meetings
SOLUTION: Delete those unnecessary words. Deletion leaves you with this:
“Hubb announces CEO Allie Magyar is a 2017 Smart Women in Meetings Award winner. The award recognizes top female meeting professionals in five categories: Industry Leaders, Innovators, Entrepreneurs, Doers, and Rising Stars.”
Now you’ve got a piece readers can traverse faster and understand easier. And because of that, readers will be more inclined to keep reading beyond graf 1.
Added benefit: the shorter form makes it more convenient for readers to share on social media.
Still, though, this graf is rough around the edges. Here’s one way it could be remedied.
RICH SMITH PROPOSED REWRITE:
“Allie Magyar, CEO of Hubb, is a 2017 Smart Women in Meetings Award winner. The award recognizes extraordinary women achievers in the meetings profession.”
I’ve deleted the “in five categories: Industry Leaders, Innovators, Entrepreneurs, Doers, and Rising Stars” bit. Not so much because it’s gaseous (which, in this first graf it is), but because it will better serve the story if it appears in a lower, supporting graf.
Bottom line: Crisp writing is writing that gets read – and, by being read, is more likely to accomplish its mission. You make writing crisp by purging it of unnecessary words.
A press-release writing mistake many of us make (and I put myself at head of the offenders’ list) involves cramming too much information into the headline and lede.
One reason we do this is because we worship at the altar of keywords. We want our press releases to go to Google heaven and enjoy eternal life, rather than slip away into outer darkness and forever be forgotten.
I advise against this practice. Here’s why.
Readers don’t like it.
They don’t like it because it forces them to use mental machetes to hack their way through an underbrush of words just to reach the story.
By the time they get halfway there, they’re exhausted and give up.
So you must ask yourself: who am I writing this press release for? A search engine? Or a human who will decide whether or not to buy my product, service, or idea?
If your answer is a live decision-maker, then you’ve got to write your press release to be read. And read effortlessly.
Let’s use the example of a March 4 press release that was carried by the free wire-service PR.com.
Here’s the headline: “CRA Recognized as an Elite 150 by CRN for Managed Service Provider Excellence.”
PROBLEM: Alphabet soup.
There is one too many acronyms in the head. But more so, many readers likely won’t be familiar with the names CRA or CRN.
Confusion reigns as a result.
Not meaning to pile on, but it’s also not clear from the headline if the recognition is for managed service provider excellence or if CRN is an organization engaged in managed service provider excellence.
SOLUTION: Delete the words “by CRN” and spell out the acronym “CRA.”
You’d end up then with a head that reads: “Computer Resources of America Recognized as an Elite 150 for Managed Service Provider Excellence.”
Clearer and tighter, yes?
RICH SMITH PROPOSED REWRITE: “Computer Resources of America Wins Recognition for Excellence, Named to ‘Elite 150’ of Managed Service Providers.”
Now for the lede.
It read: “On February 14th, 2017, Computer Resources of America was once again recognized as an Elite 150 Company by the Channel Company’s 2017 Managed Service Provider (MSP) 500 list for the third consecutive year.”
PROBLEM: Brain overload. Not only are there a lot of facts packed into this one long sentence, but it’s configured in a way that spins too many plates in the air at the same time.
Skilled jugglers may be able to effortlessly read it. But my sense is most readers will take a pass.
SOLUTION: Break it into smaller sentences. Then, prioritize the most important fact to be presented first.
Hint: the most important fact is not “February 14th, 2017,” (which, in proper Associated Press style would be rendered as “Feb. 14,” leaving off the “th” and the “2017,” if the year happens to be the current year, which, here, it does so happen to be).
In order of priority, I’d say the facts in Sentence One should be 1) Computer Resources of America; 2) third consecutive year; 3) Elite 150 company; 4) managed service providers.
In order of priority, I’d say the facts in Sentence Two should be 1) Channel Company; 2) (a tie between) 500 managed service providers and Feb. 14.
So you’d end up with possibly this: “Computer Resources of America (CRA) has been recognized for the third consecutive year as an ‘Elite 150’ company among managed service providers. Channel Company, which identifies the Top 500 managed service providers, announced the honor Feb. 14.”
RICH SMITH PROPOSED REWRITE: “Computer Resources of America (CRA) today announced it was named an ‘Elite 150’ managed service provider. This is CRA’s third straight year as an ‘Elite 150’ honoree. The recognition was bestowed Feb. 14 by Channel Company, which charts the Top 500 managed service providers.”
The takeaway from this is always put the reader first, search engines second.
In fact, if you put the reader first, the search engines will actually reward you. That’s because Google et al rank higher for content that people are likely to want to actually read.
The only way people want to read something is if the writing makes whatever’s on the page readily accessible.
Bottom line: accessibility requires sentences that are short, crisp, clean, simple, well organized, and informative.