Sunday, March 07, 2004

Passive Voice 

Coincidentally, my wife and I are editing manuscripts from two academic institutions. We arrived at two conclusions during our work. Academics don't: 1. Write well. 2. Use active voice.

My wife has been tangling with the first conclusion more than I. She is working with a manuscript from a college, some of which she says is incomprehensible. I have been editing the manuscript of a not-for-profit school that is largely understandable. We both have had problems with academics using passive voice, however. There seems to be inbred discomfort among academics to say anything without hedging, hence, the passive voice. Unfortunately, when one writes to persuade others, nuanced writing is ineffective. Say what you have to say. If you are not comfortable saying it clearly and understandably, then don't say it all.

I have a relation who has spent a career teaching students to write. Hers is apparently a year-long exercise -- and this is for business memos and correspondence. I have argued with her that teaching others to write should not be so complicated. It starts with thinking, not with writing, however. A clear thinker should be a clear writer, or can learn to be a clear writer quickly. Lousy writing comes from turgid thinking more than from bad grammatical mechanics.

When I see bad PR writing -- and I have seen a lot of it --, I find time and again that the individual had not worked out what he or she wanted to say. I hammer on the need to outline one's thoughts -- to make A fit logically to B and B to C and ultimately, to Z. But no, poor writers would rather find thoughts in verbiage spilled onto a page.

Now, don't get me wrong. I counsel writers who are blocked to write randomly at first to get something on paper. I then tell them to outline what they have written. This is different, however, from those who continue to write, hoping they will find right words. Writing in PR is not a creative effort. It is logical persuasion that moves readers swiftly and comfortably from point A to point Z.

Academic writing should be the same. Too often, it isn't.


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