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.
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.