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 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.