The Science of Good Writing: Taking Action

This post is part of a series on the “science” of good writing, based on the article “The Science of Scientific Writing” by Gopen and Swan. Want to start at the beginning of the series? That’s cool. Otherwise, keep on reading!

What’s the difference between these three sentences?

  • I baked a cake.
  • The cake was baked by me.
  • Did you even notice that I baked a cake?

The first sentence is active voice; the second sentence is passive voice. The third sentence is passive-aggressive voice. *cue rimshot*

Okay, okay. “Passive aggressive voice” isn’t a thing. That one was a joke. But passive voice is real, and it plagues a good many writers. A lot of writers have a general sense that passive voice is bad, but they have trouble identifying it, explaining why they shouldn’t use it, or fixing it.

I have some news for you, writers. What I’m about to say may shock you. It may fly in the face of everything you’v ever been told about passive voice.

Passive voice isn’t inherently bad.

Shocker, I know. But it’s true!

Getting rid of passive voice is one of the techniques Gopen and Swan suggest for improving your writing. In most cases, I don’t disagree. There are a few instances where you, as a writer, may find passive voice to be useful. In this post, I’m going to explain passive voice–talk about what it is, how to identify it, and how to get rid of it. Then, I’ll talk about those times that you should consider using it.

Why is it called passive voice?

Okay, so what is passive voice? For that matter, what is active voice? Well, let’s think about the meaning of those two adjectives–passive and active. What does it mean to be active? No, not active in the, like, exercise sense, but if the analogy helps, let’s go with it. To be active means that you… do things. You take actions. You run, you swim, you hike, you bike.

Now, what does it mean to be passive? Being passive means that you don’t take actions. Things happen to you, things that you don’t necessarily have control over because you’re not acting.

Consider the following sentence:

Screenshot of Pokemon Go mobile game. The screen shows a black and yellow pokeball with the caption, "Bidoof was caught!"

So, who caught this Pokémon? In other words, who did the catching? Who completed the action? I did, but you wouldn’t know that from this sentence, because it’s passive voice. I’m not saying the Bidoof didn’t do anything while I was catching it. Actually, it was rather annoying, jumping around on the screen and hopping out of the ball the first two times I caught it. But I was the one who did the action “catch.”

This is an extremely petty gripe, I know, but I do not understand why the screen doesn’t say “You caught Bidoof!” Maybe it’s a translation issue? Oh, well. I’m (mostly) over it.

Subjects and Verbs and Voices, Oh, My!

Enough Pokémon chat already. What exactly are active and passive voice?

Here are the textbook-style definitions:

  • In active voice, the subject does the action expressed in the verb of the sentence.
  • In passive voice, the action expressed in the sentence is not done by the sentence’s subject.

Fun fact, those sentences are also in active and passive voice, respectively.

While Gopen and Swan talk about passive and active voice in terms of action, another book talks about active voice in terms of both action and characters. In their book Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup ask you, the writer, to think about a sentence in terms of it possible actions and characters. Actions are things that can be done, and characters are people, places, things, or ideas.

The way to write in active voice, say Williams and Bizup, is to make sure that characters are the grammatical subjects of sentences, and that actions are the verbs of sentences. Here’s a quick refresher if you need a reminder of what’s a subject and what’s a verb.

Okay, so let’s consider the two cake sentences from before:

  • I baked a cake.
  • The cake was baked by me.

In both sentences, both I and the cake are characters. The action is baked. Which sentence is active, and which is passive?

The active sentence is the sentence in which the grammatical subject is a character who is doing an action: I baked a cake.

Finding and Changing Passive Voice

So, then, how do you find passive voice and change it into active voice? Here’s a quick five step guide:

  1. Find all possible characters in the sentence.
  2. Find all possible actions in the sentence.
  3. Locate the grammatical subject.
  4. Locate the verb.
  5. Is the grammatical subject a character who is doing the action located in the verb? If yes, great! You’ve got active voice. If not, you probably have passive voice.

What’s great about this five-step process is that changing passive voice into active voice takes only one more step:

  1. Find an appropriate character-action pair in the sentence and make sure they’re the grammatical subject and grammatical verb.

Active vs. Passive Voice: Ultimate Showdown

Okay, so now you can define, identify, and change passive voice. Great! Here’s a question you may still be asking:

Spongebob Squarepants holds an rainbow between his hands and asks, "Why"

In many cases, active voice is easier on the reader. For one thing, active sentences usually have fewer words than their passive counterparts, which means they’re quicker to read. But Gopen and Swan also point out that it can be much easier to understand the “story” of a sentence if its “players” (Williams and Bizup’s “characters”) are doing the actions.

But is it ever appropriate to use the passive voice? Yes, actually! I can think of at least a couple.

Connecting Sentences with Passive Voice

One reason to use passive voice is to improve the connections between two sentences. Another reason might be to make sure that you’re putting old information in the topic position and new information in the stress position, like I talked about in a previous post.

Consider following passages of micro-fiction:

  • “Oh, no!” I said, pointing to the four-tier cake with yellow icing and marzipan decoration on top. “I baked that cake.”
  • “Excuse me,” I said, interrupting the baker who was trying to take all of my credit. “That cake was baked by me.”

In the first passage, I want to put the emphasis on which cake I baked, so I put “that cake” at the end of the sentence. In the second passage, I want to make sure no one is taking credit for my work, so put “me” in the stress position. These are examples from fiction, but the same principle applies to nonfiction writing as well.

Shifting Blame with Passive Voice

There’s something else you can do with passive voice, too.

A couple of months ago, I got a notification from Netflix:

Your monthly subscription rate is rising.

Funny how they don’t mention who’s raising it.

Now, pedants will argue that the verbs “rise” is not the same as the verb “raise,” and that the first sentence isn’t technically passive voice because the sentence is expressing a state of being in lieu of an action. FINE. How about this one:

A data breach was discovered, and your data may have been compromised.

Both parts of this compound sentence are passive voice. Who discovered this data breach? And who compromised the data?

This is a hypothetical example, but companies that have experienced data breaches may choose to use passive voice to obfuscate a few things. If they say, “We discovered a data breach,” they may have to acknowledge that there was a period of time that they did not know the data had been compromised. And if they say, “Hackers may have stolen your data,” they have to acknowledge the presence of the hackers. By using passive voice, they can just… leave those things out.

This is a strategy I myself have recommended in my technical and professional communication classes, but I’m considering changing my stance. Maybe I’ll write a whole post about this one day, but a better PR strategy these days may be to just accept blame and work to write whatever wrong has been committed. And the first step might be using active voice.

And that’s it, folks! We’ve made it to the end of the mini-series on Gopen and Swan’s The Science of Scientific Writing. Which tip do you think will be most useful in your own writing? Let me know in the comments below!

If you want, you can also revisit the other pieces in the series:

That’s a Big Word!

When I was young (we’re talking, like six or seven), I had trouble remembering how to spell my middle name. To help me out, my mom made up a little acronym:

  • Danny’s
  • Elf’s
  • Nose
  • Is
  • So
  • Elongated

That’s right, folks. To help me remember how to spell a six-letter name, Mom taught me a nine-letter, four-syllable word. And it worked! I’ve remembered how to spell “Denise” ever since, though I no longer need the acronym, of course.

My point is, I was a precocious little snot, especially when it came to language acquisition. I was thinking about this story recently, and I had a brainwave.

Introducing: my new Youtube show targeted at kids age 3 – 7, That’s a Big Word!

There are plenty of precocious little snots out there just like me who may be stuck inside with their parents all day thanks to COVID-19 (or, you know, just thanks to summer). Why not help them bolster their young vocabularies with a show that’s simple, fun, and educational? So I made a pilot and threw it up on Youtube.

It was a lot of fun to do, and I think I’m going to produce a few more at the very least. If there’s enough interest, I’ll possibly branch off and give the show its own channel and Facebook presence. So let me know what you think about it! Comment here or like the episode on Youtube. And, of course, give it a share if you know someone who’d enjoy it!

Fight for Racial Justice

Serious post time, and a call to action. Help me support organizations fighting for racial justice and anti-racism work. If you donate to one of the organizations listed in the comments and send me a screen shot of your donation, I’ll provide one of the services to you at no (additional) cost:

  • $10: Copy edit of a resume/CV, cover letter, or other one-page (>800 words) document
  • $20: Copy edit of a resume/CV AND cover letter, or other two-page (>1600 words) document
  • $25: Complete reworking/revision of a resume/CV OR cover letter, or other one-page document
  • $40: Complete reworking/revision of a resume/CV AND cover letter, or other two-page document
  • $50: Write resume/CV or cover letter from scratch, given you provide the info
  • $100: Write resume/CV AND cover letter from scratch, given you provide info. Includes (if desired) a 30-minute video conference call to discuss how to target resume and cover letter to a specific job.
  • >$100: Just PM me. We’ll work something out.

Organizations to support:

In order to prove you donated and get the conversation started, find me on Facebook and send me a message.

The Science of Good Writing: What’s the Missing Piece?

This post is part of a series on the “science” of good writing, based on the article “The Science of Scientific Writing” by Gopen and Swan. Want to start at the beginning of the series? That’s cool. Otherwise, keep on reading!

There’s this Youtube series from food magazine Bon Appetit called Gourmet Makes. In it, Claire Saffitz, a pastry chef, attempts to make gourmet versions of pre-packaged, shelf-stable treats–everything from Pop Rocks to Pringles. Through trial and error, Claire comes up with a recipe and procedure for that week’s gourmet treat. It’s a wonderful series and you should go watch it–after you finish reading this post, of course.

But why am I talking about Gourmet Makes on a writing blog? Because the whole crux of that show is Claire’s ability to guess her way into creating a recipe. She has this uncanny ability to try something, taste it, and then say, “It still needs X.”

In my last post, I wrote about how you can meet reader expectations by putting certain information in certain places–you put old information in the topic position and new information in the stress position, and you keep your subjects and verbs close together.

But sometimes, writing isn’t confusing because of how we arrange the sentences, it’s confusing because of what’s not in them. It still needs… something, but how do we know what it needs?

Take this sentence, for example:

I needed to go to the grocery store, but it was the day after Halloween.

Depending on your particular cultural context, your first thought may have been, “So what?” What about this sentence, though:

I needed to go to the grocery store, but it was Christmas Day.

If you’re from a country like the United States, where most stores are closed on Christmas Day, you immediately understood the problem of the second sentence. But if you’re from the United States, you may not have understood why it would be a problem to go to the store the day after Halloween.

In the United States, where I’m from, it typically wouldn’t be a problem to go to the grocery store on the day after Halloween. But in Luxembourg, where I currently live, it is. Luxembourg is a majority Catholic country, and November 1st, All Saint’s Day, is a federally recognized holiday. And most businesses, not just grocery stores, are closed on federal holidays. To fully understand the first example sentence above, you have to know all three of those things: that I live in Luxembourg, that the day after Halloween is a federal holiday, and that stores are closed on federal holidays.

When you write for an audience, there will always be some things your audience already knows that you don’t need to tell them. But it can be hard to know precisely what they do know and what they don’t know, especially if you’re an expert writing about a topic.

Luckily, sometimes we can figure out when something is missing–just like our hero, Claire–just by using the strategy we learned in the previous blog post. If we make sure that old information comes at the beginning of a sentence, in the topic position, and new information comes at the end of a sentence, in the stress position, we can figure out what information is missing.

Let’s take a revised version of the paragraph above, where I explained about November 1st, and see if we can figure out what’s missing. I’ll put old information in italics and new information in bold.

I currently live in Luxembourg. Luxembourg is a majority Catholic country, and November 1st, All Saint’s Day, is a federally recognized holiday. I can’t go to the store on All Saint’s Day.

Can you spot what’s missing? In each sentence, I used old information in the topic position and new information in the subject position, but that last sentence can still be confusing if you don’t fill out the missing logical leap–that most stores are closed on federally recognized holidays, unlike most holidays in the States.

These logical leaps can be confusing, and they can also be hard to spot! One way to find them is to look at all pieces of new information in your paragraph and to ask yourself, have I given enough context, enough old information, so that the new information will make sense to the reader?

Unfortunately, sometimes you can do all of these steps and still not spot a logical gap. And that’s why it’s important to have other people read your work when you can. But that’s a blog post for another day.

So, what do you think of the strategies from The Science of Scientific Writing so far? Have they helped you in any way? Let me know in the comments, and maybe share this post as well! Or maybe check out the other posts in the series:

Enjoy, and happy writing!

The Science of Good Writing: The Structure of Reader Expectations

This post is part of a series on the “science” of good writing. You can read the first two posts here and here if you’d like, but you can also just dive right in!

As I discussed in my last post, one key to good writing is to meet reader expectations. If you don’t meet reader expectations, it can pull the reader out of the text, like plucking a long strand of hair out of your spaghetti bolognese. Yuck.

So how do you meet reader expectations?

It can be really hard, and I mean, really hard to know exactly what your readers will expect. Luckily, though, Gopen and Swan give us a few suggestions based primarily on the structure of our prose.

What do I mean by structure? Really, what they’re talking about is sequential order. In fiction, we talk about stories having a beginning, middle, and end. Often–but not always–things happen in chronological order. The beginning of the story tells what happened first; the middle describes what happened next, and in the end, we find out what happened last.

But we can talk about sequential order of nonfiction prose, too, and on an even smaller scale than beginning, middle, and end. We can talk about the order of sections, the order of paragraphs, or even the order of sentences.

These are all very important. But we can also talk about the order of the information and words in our sentences. And that’s where Gopen and Swan focus several pieces of their advice. They essentially have three things to say about sequential ordering within sentences:

  • The first part of the sentence is called the topic position. This is where you put the topic of the sentence, which is usually old information.
  • The second part of the sentence is called the stress position. This is where you put information that you want to stress, or emphasize. Often, this is new information.
  • You should put the sentence’s subject as close to its verb as you can.

I’ll use the bullet points above as examples. I’ll italicize the topic position and bold the stress position.

The first part of the sentence is called the topic position.

In this sentence, “The first part of the sentence” is old information. You know that I’m about to talk about sentence ordering, so the phrase “The first part” is expected information. However, “topic position” was new information at that point, and I wanted to emphasize that piece of jargon. So, I put it in the stress position.

In addition to using the topic position and the stress position in ways that readers expect, you want to keep subjects and verbs as close together as you can, as often as you can. Unfortunately, this does mean you need to be able to identify subjects and verbs. I don’t have a blog post on this topic just yet, but you can check out this quick refresher from grammarbook.com if you’d like.

So let’s use the last bullet point above as an example. I’ll italicize the subject and bold the verb.

You should put the sentence’s subject as close to its verb as you can.

In this case, the subject is right next to the verb. That makes it easier on the reader than, say, this sentence:

The subject of the sentence you, the esteemed author, are carefully writing, with all its great importance to the comprehensibility of the sentence of which it is a constituent, needs to be as close to the verb as humanly possible.

I’m not going to lie. That sentence was as fun to write as it was confusing to read. There are a whole twenty-six words and four commas in between the subject and the verb! Yeesh!

In theory, those rules are pretty easy to follow. But they can be difficult to put into practice. Why? Because they require you to take a step back from your writing and think about the structure of each sentence, which takes time. But if you do take that time, you can make your writing that much better.

Stay tuned for more writing tips from Gopen and Swan! Next up: figuring out what’s missing in a piece of writing. And here’s a preview of past and coming attractions, otherwise known as the other posts in this series:

Happy reading!

The “Science” of Science Writing: Reader Expectations

This post is part of a series on the “science” of good writing. You can read the first post here if you’d like, but you can also just dive right in!

How do you determine if writing is good?

Depending on who you ask, the answer will be more or less nuanced–good writing is clear and concise; good writing is engaging or persuasive. Some would argue that writing can’t be good unless its content is based on sound ethical principals. Others might say that any writing is good as long as it gets its message across.

George Gopen and Judith Swan, in their piece The Science of Scientific Writing, foreground the audience as a determining factor in what makes a piece of writing good. This isn’t necessarily a new idea; audience-centered communication has been taught at least as far back as Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

But Gopen and Swan specifically talk about centering audience expectations. When an audience reads a sentence or a paragraph, what do they expect?

Gif of a short clip from the Monty Python sketch, "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition." Three red-robed gentlemen burst into a modern-day living room, and a caption appears, saying "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!"
False! No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

Turns out, readers general expectations are pretty easy to predict. And understanding and meet those expectations are core components of Gopen and Swan’s idea of good writing.

Purple giraffes fly over the moon.

See what I mean? You’re probably thinking, “Wait, what about purple giraffes?” I threw completely new information–a new topic, even–at you completely out of the blue. I didn’t even lead into it with the question, “What happens when you don’t meet audience expectations” because I wanted the sentence to feel as out of place as possible.

It pulls you out of the text and might have made the paragraph after it a bit more difficult to read, even though the sentence “Purple giraffes fly over the moon” clocks in at about a fourth-grade reading level.

So what are audience expectations? And how do I meet them to help make my writing better?

We’ll get into that next time. And speaking of next time, here’s a list of all the posts in this series. As each piece comes out, I’ll edit in the links here, so bookmark this page or follow the blog if you want to stay up to date!

  • November 8: The “Science” of Good Writing
  • November 15: This post!
  • November 22: The Structure of Reader Expectations
  • November 29: What’s the Missing Piece?
  • December 6: Taking Action

Thanks for reading–see you next time!

Book Review: How to Start a Revolution by Lauren Duca

[Full disclosure: I received a free electronic galley of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.]

Like many after the 2016 US presidential election, I became more politically active than I had been prior to the election. I protested, I joined political organizations, I contacted my representatives. I donated to causes that mattered to me.

And then I moved.

Not just to another city, or even another state. My spouse got a job across the Atlantic in the country of Luxembourg, which (sorry, Luxembourg) I’d barely heard of before his job offer.

The move was exciting, but it was also very difficult for several reasons, most of which are not relevant to this post. But one consequence of the overseas move was the waning of my newfound agency amid the ever-turbulent US political landscape.

We’re not in Luxembourg permanently; my spouse’s job is a temporary contract lasting three to five years, so we’ll be back in the states sometime after 2021. I’m hoping the state of American politics will look a bit different once we return. But in the meantime, I have been feeling even more helpless than I did on November 9th, 2016. Since I was no longer living in the States, could I still even use Resistbot to write to my representatives? Who were my representatives now? What could I possibly do about the US mess all the way over here?

Those were my feelings in a nutshell.

And then I read Lauren Duca’s How to Start a Revolution.

An Eerily Familiar Story

The introduction and first chapter of How to Start a Revolution tell the story of Duca’s own political awakening, and it’s a story similar to my own. Her stories of growing up vaguely “Republican” because she knew that’s how her parents voted, of coming into her own political beliefs, of having a “political awakening” that included tense discussions—even fights—with well-meaning family members she loved very much—I knew this song by heart. I could even sing along.

Duca’s descriptions of these familial tensions were, at times, difficult to get through because of these similarities. But that’s also why they are a vital part of her book. In her struggles, I saw my own.

In her triumphs, too, though, I glimpsed myself and my kin. I don’t want to give too much away because I want you to read the book for yourself, but I will say this. Her stories of interactions with family members are based on real life, so they definitely don’t end with everyone skipping down the road together to a Bernie Sanders rally or anything. But they’re not all doom-and-gloom, either. The last family story she tells is less an ending and more a continuing saga, shot through with a bright ray of optimism.

The Kids Really Are All Right

And speaking of optimism, this book is full of it. But don’t mistake this optimism for empty platitudes and wishful thinking. Rather, How to Start a Revolution shares the stories of young people around the US who reached a political breaking point, asked how they could make a difference—and then did it.

I’m an older millennial (b. 1985) who, for the past ten years or so, has worked in higher education. I’ve been both a tutor and a teacher of college writing classes, so for the past decade, it’s been my job to work with young people, mostly other millennials and Gen Z. You could say I know them well.

So, I knew going into this book that the kids were all right. But in reading How to Start a Revolution, I got an even better sense of the many ways that young people are working to change the world—they’re starting nonprofit organizations, campaigning for gun control, and running for office… and winning.

In a nutshell, Duca’s project investigates what she sees as a large-scale political awakening of young people after the 2016 US presidential election. She talks to young people around the country, asking them what kept them out of the political arena before, and why they’re entering it now. She consults foundational texts in political science and theory—and sometimes the authors of those very texts—to try to find a vocabulary for what’s happened, and I think that overall, she succeeds.

Food for Thought

I say “overall” because while I very much enjoyed this book, and I hope it is as inspiring for other people as it has been for me (spoiler alert),  there are a couple of small things that gave me pause that I want to discuss briefly.

Not everyone needed waking up.

While the “political awakening” Duca describes was very familiar to me, some people have been “awake” to the political ills of the US all along. And while Duca does acknowledge this, even explaining the origin of the slang “woke,” I often wished she did more to highlight the work of those who didn’t need any waking up—the folks young and old who campaigned for marriage rights, or the folks behind Black Lives Matter (though she does discuss BLM a bit).

I’m not saying she doesn’t acknowledge these movements, or acknowledge the work of movements long before these, either, because she does. But sometimes the language she uses in describing the “waking up” of young people eclipses those other movements. I think this happens in part because the drama of a political awakening can be quite motivating—I certainly found it so. But for the drama of waking up to be most effective, you have to start off asleep.

What is the job of journalism?

Another thing that gave me pause was Duca’s faith in her own profession. Which, to be fair, I can’t fault her for. I just take a much more cynical view. Duca sees her job, and the job of all journalists, as providing citizens with factual information so that they can form educated beliefs about the world around them. And, again, to be fair, that may be the job of individual journalists.

But the job of a newspaper is often to sell itself, and it always has been. As I tell my students, Donald Trump didn’t invent fake news—William Randolph Hurst and Joseph Pulitzer engaged it in it long before he did, and before them, so did John Adams! I take more of a Chomskian view of the media, which colored my perceptions of Duca’s proclamations about the point of the media.  

Once again, I want to be fair to her here, too. Though it’s not the major project of her book, she devotes a decent amount of real estate to discussions of media literacy. Media literacy is the ability to look at a piece of media and think critically about it—to question what’s being said in light of who’s saying it. Which I think Chomsky would approve of, and so do I.  As a college writing professor, I appreciate her discussions of media literacy so much that I am thinking about using portions of the book in future classes. I haven’t decided one way or the other, but I’m mulling it about in ye olde brainpan.

Who Should Read This Book?

The things that gave me pause, I think, mostly stem from the fact that, in some ways, this book isn’t really for me. Or, rather, I’m not who Duca had in mind when she was writing. Much of what she writes about, I already knew going in—things like the political-industrial complex, or the many ways that complex gatekeeps newcomers (especially young people).

But there’s plenty that I didn’t know, too. The particular stories of inspiring young activists across the US, the actual numbers behind youth engagement in (or alienation from) politics—many of these things were new to me.

What’s more, there’s a big reason that I’d recommend this book to anyone feeling frustrated and hopeless about or alienated from US politics. It’s inspiring meto act.

You I Really Can Make a Difference

As I was reading, I kept becoming so inspired by these young people’s stories that I kept putting the book down and googling new ways I can get involved and make a difference—even from across the pond in Luxembourg. There are two organizations I’m planning to join, one of which I’m planning to apply for a volunteer position.

Even as I sat down to write this review and remembered the feelings of both literal and metaphorical distance I’ve felt from US politics, I had myself a little google, and I figured out both who my congresspeople are—turns out they’re the same as where I was last registered to vote, lol. I also learned there’s a whole organization advocating for US citizens abroad that I didn’t even know about.

So, who should read this book? You, if you’re feeling like you want to make a difference but don’t know how. That’s the title of the book, after all—How to Start a Revolution. Duca ends the book with literally three easy steps for becoming a more engaged citizen, but I’m not going to spoil them here. For those, you’ll have to read her book for yourself.