3 posts tagged

clarity

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 holding 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

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.
2016   clarity   passive voice   syntax

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

2016   clarity   editing   persuasion   simplicity