Saturday, January 12, 2013

Active People Write in Active Voice

Here's a golden oldie from 2008 discovered while cleaning up some files.  It was placed inside our web writing style guide for  Enjoy.

            It really isn’t a question.  In sports writing, the use of the helping verb “to be” weakens the action and implies passivity in the prose.  Sports are active, and the first enemy of creating that active voice that best expresses the tone of sports is passive verb choice.  During the editing of copy, any instance of is, are, was or were should serve as warning signs.  Changing from the perfect tenses – particularly the future perfect – achieves the goal: active voice and cleaner copy.
            As examples, simply the verbs:
Arkansas will compete this weekend becomes Arkansas competes this weekend
            Sometimes, a verb change is in order
Jones was presented the MVP trophy becomes Jones received the MVP trophy
            Another example:
            WRONG:  The Arkansas bowling team will be on the road this weekend . . .
            BETTER, BUT STILL WRONG:  The Arkansas bowling team will go on the road this weekend . . .
            CORRECT:  The Arkansas bowling team goes on the road this weekend . . .

            There is a balance between common adverbs and florid writing.  Huh?  Perfect example.  Fancy writing, foo-foo writing, overly erudite writing – these are easier to understand than florid.  At the same time, florid – defined as very flowery in style or elaborately decorated – is correct.  Would ornate be a better word?  Perhaps.  Adverbs and adjectives can be a writers best friend and worst enemy.  Just like dropping in the helping verbs to add a grand tone, too many modifiers also lead to bloated text.
            A confident batter shouldn’t walk slowly to the plate.  They should saunter to the plate.  “Saunter” achieves two goals – it adds expression and it eliminates two words:  “walk slowly”.
            Extra modifiers lead to redundancies.  A performance cannot be “very unique” – by definition unique is one-of-a-kind.  A home run should not be an “enormous giant” hit.  A senior captain is not a “valuable treasure”.

            By the third time the athlete or school name appears, the reader gets bored.  Modifier second references to preface a school or name can break up the monotony of the repeated use of the object noun.  Like any writing tool, consider it a spice; not the meat.  It becomes obvious and distracting if every time an athlete’s name appears it is preceded or followed by a modifying clause.  Some details should be written into the prose in a straightforward subject-verb-object manner.

            Keep action in copy by avoiding at all costs the passive voice.  One technique to remember the difference:  show the reader (active) rather than telling (passive).   The classic English class definition for the passive voice:  the recipient of the action is not at the lead of the sentence.  In the active, the subject does what the verb expressed.
            Look for these flags:
            Helping verbs and perfect tense – “to be” + the key verb
                        Arkansas will be the host vs. Arkansas will host
            Certain other words – had, that, which
            Passive verbs – thought, wandered versus think, ran.
            Verbs that are abstract nouns -- -ment, -ing, -ion transformations
            “It is” + “that” – It is said that Arkansas . . . .
As an example that we have all written:
            ACTIVE:  Smith scored the winning basket with less than a second on the clock.
            PASSIVE:  The winning basket was scored by Smith with less than a second on the clock.

            ACTIVE:  Smith checked the Wolverine winger into the boards.
PASSIVE:  The Wolverine winger was checked into the boards by Smith.

On the first read, the passive might sound a little more dramatic, but the helping “to be” verb (was) takes just a little strength out of the action verbs (scored, checked).

            Copy for sports publicity should be straight-forward.  The perfect and progressive tenses rarely have a place in the day-to-day operations and press releases of an organization.  In long-form features (and long-form prose like season preview, season review, yearbooks, press guides), these tenses can move the story along.  In the following example, both sentences are grammatically correct, but which one evokes a sense of activity.

            Arkansas has been preparing for the NCAA Championship for three years.
            Arkansas prepared for the NCAA Championship for three years.

There is the added benefit of taking up two fewer works to say the same thing.

            Read what you have written out loud.  Not to yourself.  Putting prose to voice reveals the sticking points.  Wherever a hesitation creeps into the reading, something is wrong with the writing.  For example:

Arkansas Razorback Robert Childers, a triple jumper on the track and field team, has been honored by the Southeastern Conference, it was announced on Tuesday. Childers was named the SEC Field Athlete of the Week.

            Two clauses are wrapped inside the first sentence, and the honor itself is set aside in a second sentence.  One might argue that “triple jumper” and “on the track and field team” are redundant.  To streamline this passage and make it active:

The Southeastern Conference honored Arkansas triple jumper Robert Childers as the SEC Field Athlete of the Week this Tuesday.

            In the previous example of overlapping clauses and rough construction, we get a lead that is fine for the granting institution.  When issued by the league or organization, that group is almost always at the front of the story.  The emphasis should be on the recipient from the point of view of the school involved.  This is where the passive voice comes into play for athletics – we want to lead with our athlete.

The Southeastern Conference honored Arkansas triple jumper Robert Childers as the SEC Field Athlete of the Week this Tuesday.

Arkansas triple jumper Robert Childers was named by the Southeastern Conference as the league’s Field Athlete of the Week this Tuesday.

Childers is not the active noun; she is the object of the SEC’s action.  By adjusting the verb by eliminating the helping verb and swapping the direction of the verb, we can create active voice.

Arkansas pole triple jumper Robert Childers received the Southeastern Conference Field Athlete of the Week award on Tuesday.

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