Death by Passive Voice

Max Bears on clear writing, editing and seducing the reader

The Piano Lessons effect

Tim Urban is great at explaining. Here is a thing I liked in his article about Trump. Look at this bit:

“I hate everyone who voted for Trump—those stupid, racist, xenophobic fucks.”

〈...〉

People vote for hope and change when they’re in pain. When I watched the election last night, I didn’t see a bunch of assholes voting to be hateful, I saw a bunch of people going through a lot of suffering hoping for something better.

Which is why, if you’re a Hillary supporter, in addition to this being a time for disappointment and frustration, it should also be a time for reflection. Half your country voted for Trump. Over 50 million people—people with kids and parents and jobs and dogs and calendars on their wall with piano lessons and doctors appointments and birthday parties written in the squares. Full, three-dimensional people who voted for what they hope will be a better future for themselves and their family.

Tim is saying, people who voted Trump are not the stupid racist xenophobic fucks we think they are. They are just like us. Notice how we come to this conclusion without Tim actually saying ‘They are like us’.

How does he do that?

Relatable details

Look at this bit. Why the detail?

Over 50 million people—people with kids and parents and jobs and dogs and calendars on their wall with piano lessons and doctors appointments and birthday parties written in the squares.

With this detail, Tim makes Trump supporters real and similar to us, readers. But he doesn’t make that conclusion himself—he never says ‘Trump supporters are like us.’ He makes readers come to that conclusion by experiencing life through their eyes.

You experience their lives → you find they have similar experiences → you conclude they are like you → they are no longer the xenophobic fucks you thought they were.

And this is all done with the vivid details that we have all experienced: the piano lessons, the birthdays, the squares in your calendar. We believe this because we can imagine this. Tim persuades us through our own imagination.

Reverse effect

We can also use this effect in reverse. Let’s say Tim was trying to alienate Trump supporters. Then he would go with something like this:

Over 50 million people—people with employees and investors and board meetings and personal assistants and dressage and fundraisers and red carpet events.

The structure is the same. But the details are different: we can imagine them vividly, but we can’t relate to them. And because we can’t relate, the 50 million people are now alien. And it’s easy to hate the alien.

Once again, you won’t even need to say ‘These Trump supporters are different from us.’ Your choice of detail will make readers come to that conclusion all by themselves, driven by their own imagination.

How this works

There’s the tangible and the abstract.

Words like ‘wood’, ‘ground’, ‘stone’, ‘birthday’, ‘coffee’ or ‘glass’ relate to something we know from physical experience. You have seen, touched, smelled or otherwise experienced these words. When I say ‘coffee’, you remember the sense of taste and smell. When I say ‘birthday,’ you remember a perfect birthday, with smells and sounds and everything. There is a ton of sensory information behind these words. These are tangible.

Words like ‘community’, ‘virtue’, ‘pride’, ‘worry’, ‘task’ or ‘unity’ relate to abstract ideas. We don’t have the sensory information for these ideas. We know what ‘virtue’ means, but we can’t imagine it. These are abstract.

Your writing is more persuasive when it is based on the tangible details, rather than abstract concepts. That is only because we can picture the tanglble. And it’s easier to believe something we can picture:

Abstract Tangible
Over 50 million people—people with relatives and problems and pets and self-management, leisure activities and healthcare issues and social gatherings scheduled for the future. Over 50 million people—people with kids and parents and jobs and dogs and calendars on their wall with piano lessons and doctors appointments and birthday parties written in the squares.
Our new system makes processing orders faster and more accurate. Advanced voice recognition allows for keyboard-free input of any customer data to ensure high quality and reliability of your service. We help restaurant managers take delivery orders on the phone without touching the keyboard. The system listens to your clients’ delivery address, finds it on the map and makes sure it’s valid, so your delivery man never gets lost.

We only believe in things we can picture.
Use tangible details to paint the picture

Here’s some tangible stuff to serve as Facebook teaser:

Busta Rhymes proves simple is best

Check out this clip.

Here’s what Busta Rhymes is saying off screen:

Hip Hop has been significantly important on a global level. I think Hip Hop has also been one of the greatest teachers and sources of information. Whether it’s how to dress, learning each other’s language, learning each other’s way of thinking, learning each other’s... everything, you know. Hip Hop has been able to do that more than any other music.

So far, it’s okay. Now watch what happens to his voice, as he speaks this next bit.

In every culture it has been just as impactful and effective in that dynamic. Internationally and globally so, you know. The edginess and the outspoken•ness of the culture, the competitive spirit, the competitive nature...

And now this:

...the fearlessness. Just that whole shit that makes the thing move in a way that nothing else does. You know anything that’s been more successful at bringing people together at that, let me know.

Notice how in this middle bit, Busta seems to be losing grip. He is trying to sound smart, and global, and international. And this bit sounds dull and artificial, as if a corporate lawyer was pointing a gun to his head.

Then he moves to the last part—the one he really feels. Words fly like knives, his voice raises and he delivers the shit out of that last bit. You can feel the power and the contrast.

So, what happens in the middle bit? He tries to sound smart: ‘internationally and globally’, ‘in that dynamic’, ‘competitive nature’—these words are fancy, not simple. And through these fancy words, Busta loses power. He regains power only when he gets back to simple words.

So, the outtake:

It’s best to use the simplest possible words.
Even for Busta Rhymes

2016   clarity   simplicity

It’s not all about text. And why Apple’s copy sucks

Ask a copywriter what’s the most important thing in sales. He’ll say it’s copy—the text you put in advertising. Copy sells, good copy sells more, and there is no business without a good copywriter.

Ask a designer, and he’ll say design is most important. If your renderings suck, photographs are fake, and typography is poor, customers will not emotionally connect with your product.

Managers say shipping on time is most important. Developers put software first. Engineers vote for hardware. Growth hackers say traffic is key. Disruption evangelists preach disruption, whatever that is.

In reality, these are all important, and nothing is most important. It's a mistake to think that text alone sells. Everything sells.

Look at this screenshot from Apple

The body copy is bad: it’s unclear to the point of making no sense. It tells nothing about the product. It doesn’t appeal to emotions. It literally needs translation from bullshit into English. Don Draper would fire the copywriter who wrote this, and if she were a pretty young girl, he wouldn’t even sleep with her.

And yet, iPhone 6S accounts for 48% of all U.S. iPhone sales during Apple’s fiscal first quarter.

So, if the product sells, the copy is good? No, this copy is still shit. But it doesn’t matter. People don’t buy iPhones for the copy, they buy it for many other reasons:

It’s a good product

It’s been a good product for the last five years

It looks good

The glass curves sexily at the edges

It’s a good gift for your kids, parents, wives, and girlfriends

Everyone you know has one

It plays well with other stuff you have: watches, speakers, laptops and chargers

The assistant at the Apple store is cute

You don’t get laid unless you present your partner with an iPhone (valid for some Eastern cultures)

It costs billions to create a world with so many reasons to buy an iPhone. And in that world, copy doesn’t matter that much. Apple would still ship as many iPhones, had it written something completely different, or nothing at all:

So what, copy is not important? Sure, copy is important. It's just not the only important thing. Design, interface, websites and apps, shop assistants and PR, growth hacking and digital disruption—all play part. How you present your products is important. How you clean your restrooms is important.

The opposite is also true: good copy doesn’t guarantee sales. Great design doesn’t either. You have to try hard in every direction to make it all work, and for a long time. Apple has gone a long way to create a world where their body copy doesn’t matter. Others still have to try hard in writing good copy.

Many Russians have an unhealthy obsession with words. We are a very text-centric, and a very mystical culture. I have seen multimillion-dollar-business-owners personally struggle over words in their ads. Many people believe in the mysterious power of copywriting, as if there was a magic word for guaranteed sales. But there isn’t. No matter what you believe, it’s not all about text.

It doesn’t hurt to have great copy, but it’s not that important. You still have to work hard on everything else

2016   advertising   apple   copywriting   cult

What's wrong with passive voice

Open a book on writing in English. Literally, do it. Page one will say: 'Avoid passive voice'. If it's not on page one, keep flipping the pages until you find it. It's there. It's always there.

Everyone will tell you passive voice makes your writing weak. Passive voice drains the energy from your writing and makes it less readable. Avoiding passive voice is good advice. But let's look deeper.

What is passive voice

Active voice is when someone does something upon something else. I wrote a book. Natasha brought beer. Frank met a journalist.

Passive is the same in reverse: something is done upon something else. The book was written. Beer was brought. A journalist was murdered.

Usually passive voice avoids the subject—the one that performs the action. Subject can still come visit, although it feels awkward:

Active voicePassive, no subjectPassive, with subject
We build websites in three weeks.Our websites are built in three weeks.Our websites are built in three weeks by us.
The nurse prepped him for surgery.He was prepped for surgery.He was prepped for surgery by the nurse.
My friend from Ukraine designed this for 300$.This was designed for 300$.This was designed for 300$ by my friend from Ukraine.

Why passive voice is bad for your text

Everyone says passive voice makes your sentences less energetic and clear, adds clutter, makes the text less readable. And that's all true, just look at these examples:

Passive voice Active
The product was shipped on time and on budget. We shipped the app on time and on budget.
It is required by the state to apply for a work permit before being able to be hired. The state requires you to apply for a work permit before you can get a job.
This editing technique was first developed for the Russian language and was later rebuilt for English. I developed this editing technique for Russian and then rebuilt it for English.

In most cases, avoiding passive voice is good. Except when it's not.

Sometimes you need passive voice

Passive voice is not all evil. You will need it at least in two cases: when you don't know who the subject is, or that subject is not important.

Let's say, something bad happened in Washington:

A journalist was pushed under a moving train.

That's passive voice. We have to use it when we don't know who pushed the poor girl. When there is no subject, passive voice is fine.

Let's say this in active voice:

Someone pushed a journalist under a moving train.

Active voice was supposed to add energy, but it didn't. Instead, in shifted focus.

This 'Someone' subject adds one extra idea to the sentence. What used to be a sentence about a journalist is now a sentence about two people: a 'Someone' and a journalist. Extra ideas make the sentence less focused. Extra idea adds clutter. And we want to avoid clutter.

So we turned passive voice into active and the sentence got cluttered. Means we were wrong. We needed passive voice here.

When you transform passive into active voice, you will have to add a subject — someone who performs the action. This new subject will always shift focus. Because it's the subject, it's a big deal. If you need that subject in your sentence—fine, use it. But if it's there because Strunk & White told you to avoid passive voice—think twice. Your active voice may be killing clarity.

Active voice, unclear Passive voice, clear
George d'Anthès shot Russia's prodigy poet Alexander Pushkin in a duel Russia's prodigy poet Alexander Pushkin was shot in a duel
Our contractors completed the construction of a 22-storey apartment block in September. The 22-storey apartment block was completed in September.
The electrons from the outlet have charged this battery. The battery has been charged.

When subject is irrelevant, passive voice may work just fine

Sometimes you can simply use a different verb and avoid the active—passive problem altogether:

Active Passive Different verb
The President has signed the bill banning passive voice The bill banning passive voice has been signed. Passive voice is now illegal.
Employees and clients filed at least thirty complaints about your using passive voice in the office. At least thirty complaints were filed about your passive voice in the office. We have here at least thirty complaints about your passive voice in the office.
The CEO issued a memo requesting to stop passive voice in the workplace. A memo was issued requesting to stop passive voice in the workplace. We can no longer use passive voice at work.

Don't be afraid to make mistakes

The only way to get good at writing is to write. Write a lot. And then write some more. And then get back to what you've written and rewrite it. Seriously, that's the only way. Ask anyone who's good—he'll probably never answer because he'll be busy writing.

The reason many people fail at getting good—they don't do the writing. The reason for that—their fear of making mistakes.

The Russians I know will take pride in pointing out my mistakes. This is their way of saying they are better than me: more intelligent, better-educated, with more experience. Last article I wrote—oh, had I not gotten my ass handed to me! All those people, salivating with joy, writing up screens and screens of how I went wrong in English, how I don't belong and should stay down, bury myself in Siberian snow and never write again. It pains, but it's good pain.

Here's the deal.

The more you write, the better you get. When you write a lot, you will make mistakes. Your readers will point them out and you will correct your writing. You will get good. You will get better.

So whenever you feel like writing about something that matters, just get your ass to the keyboard and do it. Write it up until you are loving what you see. Make those mistakes. Get shit from your readers. Own that shit. Then clean that shit out and move on.

Here are some tricks that help me cope with my fear of mistakes:

Admit to myself that I make mistakes. Nobody's perfect, unless you have a degree in Linguistics from an Ivy League college, in which case you're wasting your time reading this.

Make sure this is the best I can do. Before I publish, I spend the time to read, re-read and re-write, until I am confident: this is the shit. I can't do it any better.

Thank everyone for input once I get the criticism. People give feedback to feel good, so there is no reason to not let them.

Correct what truly matters, ignore the rest. Some people will spend time arguing about dashes and commas—fuck it. I'm here to get good and help others get even better, not to prove I'm right. Especially not about the dashes and the commas.

And then write some more.

Get shit. Own the shit. Correct the shit. Then write some more

2016   editing   work

What this is about

Hi! My name is Max. I am an editor in Russia. I help businesses talk to their customers.

I created a school of simple, clear and persuasive writing in Russian. For the last seven years, I developed it for Russian editors. I've written three hundred articles, launched a proofing service, a school and a book. Next stop—help my fellow editors write simple, clear and persuasive text for readers outside Russia.

Born in Russia in 1988, to a family of construction engineers. PhD in Linguistics and Teaching English as a Foreign Language. As a native Russian, this is the smiliest he gets

The method: simple

My editing method is based on three ideas: simplicity, clarity and persuasion.

Simplicity means using the simplest words and simplest syntax possible. If you need to say 'talk to your customers', I'll always recommend using 'talk', not 'communicate', 'transmit', 'divulge' or 'enlighten'.

It's harder to miss when you use simple words. Especially when you or your reader don't speak English natively. Between sounding smart and speaking simply, I always recommend simple:

SmartSimple
I will be attempting to provide guidance to fellow ink-slingers, notwithstanding the calamities of transitioning to a dissimilar linguistic system.I will try to help fellow editors, despite the difficulties of changing to a different language.
It is with great assurance that I proclaim the dictatorship of substance over the embodiment of a communicative act.I believe content is more important than style.
Nevertheless, laborious optimization of articulatory properties of written word is still required to improve the manyfold qualities of content consumption.Still, you need to work hard to make your writing readable and easy to understand.

Between sounding smart and sounding simple, always go with simple

The method: clear

Clarity means making ideas easy to understand. To achieve clarity, you will usually need to do three things: remove unnecessary ideas, get right to the point, and use structural elements: paragraphs, sections and headings. I'll talk more about clarity in future articles.

UnclearClear
However strange it might feel, many people struggle with a notion as simple as starting with what they actually have to say. This might be due to a number of issues, including upbringing, schooling or a multitude of typically Eastern cultural traditions to start any communication with a preamble.Starting with what's important is hard for many people.
It is a long way to go, and many topics to cover, including the ones related to clarity, but in time I hope to expand the scope of these articles to cover all.I will talk about clarity in future articles.

Remove clutter, put important stuff first, add headings and quotes. Like this one

The method: persuasive

Persuasion means making sure readers agree with you, or at least consider your ideas. I persuade with stories, examples, illustrations, and other kinds of proof. You will notice that every idea in this article is supported by examples.

Persuasive text avoids abstract ideas. It needs to be grounded in reality and offer relatable examples.

Abstract, unpersuasiveGrounded and persuasive
Clear and simple writing, albeit hard and complicated, is key to successful communication.

However, the tradition of teaching English as a foreign language, especially on higher levels, is hardly adjacent to the ideas of simplicity and clarity.

Many non-English-speakers tend to create smart-sounding text that lacks the properties required for effective communication. Oblivious to the fact, they build on the complexity and clutter, making the communication even less effective.
It's hard to write in English as it is. Especially when it's not your mother tongue, with all the vocabulary and grammar. Heck, the 16 tenses alone are hard enough.

What's worse—nobody ever teaches you to write clearly. If anything, your teacher will make you use smarter words and trickier grammar, not simpler. Traditional English teaching, as I know it from Russia, makes you sound smart, not clear.

I've seen many English-speaking Russians overcomplicate what they write. We try to sound smart in presentations and ads, we send mind-numbing letters and reports. Many take pride in this complexity, while their readers struggle.

Use examples and proof to persuade

This is non-fiction, for non-native speakers

My method is only designed for non-fiction: what you write for business, advertising, websites, apps and interface. To some extent—for journalism, blogging and generally writing for the web.

My method applies to people who are not native speakers: say, a Russian editor writing up a press release for Europe, or a Ukrainian designer building apps for clients in America. (See what I did there? Examples!)

As a native Russian, I realize I can never truly understand English, no matter how many episodes of Sherlock I watch. So I am not looking to teach English to English natives. But I sure hope some of my advice comes in handy.

What now

More articles on clarity, simplicity and persuasion coming up.

Follow @deathbypassive to stay updated