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Is My Writing Too Passive?

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009 by Lisa Stonestreet

Your Highness:

This letter is being written because I’ve been told that there is a problem with my writing. Specifically, a problem with the passive voice. But understanding this is difficult. I mean, my job is in marketing. I’m supposed to be good with words. And language has always come easily to me—out-of-the-box thinking is generated daily. What to do? Could there be a need here for creative destruction?

My dear Subject,

What are you hiding? I don’t mean to invoke the IRS, the CIA, or Dr. Freud—but I do wish to point out that overuse of passive verb construction in a given piece of writing often masks deeper issues lurking within the writer or subject.

But first let’s define “the passive voice.” According to the esteemed Chicago Manual of Style, “Voice shows whether the subject acts (active voice) or is acted on (passive voice)—that is, whether the subject performs or receives the action of the verb.”

So: The sentence The dog chewed on the bone is in the active voice—subject, verb, object. The bone was chewed by the dog is in the passive voice—the subject cowers, as it were, at the tail end of the sentence. Note that both versions are grammatically correct, and there are times in which the passive voice might be preferable—if one wishes to place emphasis on the object rather than the subject or action, for example. (For some guidelines on when the passive voice is appropriate, see the Capital Community College Foundation’s Guide to Grammar and Writing.)

Far more often, though, passive construction is a bad habit, picked up by association. After all, we’re surrounded by it, accosted by advertisers, politicians, and others in officialdom whose words have been massaged so they may duck responsibility for their actions (or at least the actions being visited upon us by the powers that be). This kind of language crops up often in the following situations:

  • Mendacity. The classic example here is “Mistakes were made,” uttered by Ronald Reagan in defense of his administration’s actions in the Iran-Contra scandal. No subject to the sentence? Voilà—no one to blame.
  • Underlying flabbiness of thought. Passive voice often crops up alongside business jargon, and their concurrence is no accident. It’s much more difficult to say what you mean, with clarity and rigor.
  • Discomfort with the message. Is that deliverable unable to be delivered… by you? Does that product you’re promoting that claims to be “98% calorie-free” contain 98% water plus 2% HFCS and Red Dye #2? Passive language often rears its head when we don’t want to take responsibility for what we’re saying.

Before you send that memo, read though it and weed out excess passivity. Look at your writing; look inside yourself. Then go forth and be active.

Yours precisely,
The Grammar Queen

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Making Your Case: A Guide to Compelling Customer Case Studies

Thursday, October 15th, 2009 by Client

I recently took a stroll down memory lane—and tripped and fell. The occasion was a look at some of the first customer case studies I ever wrote, way back in 1992. Rereading those pieces, it turned out, was not exactly a pleasant excursion—more like visiting an embarrassing relative. I was relieved no one else would […]

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“After Deadline,” The New York Times

Thursday, October 8th, 2009 by Chris Kent

If you want to learn how to write clean copy, fast and under the gun – for marketing or any other arena where clarity is valued – the best training is in a big-city newsroom. (Assuming there are any such jobs left in journalism, but that’s another story.) Those of us lucky enough to have […]

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Who Should Run the Company’s Social Media Efforts?

Thursday, October 1st, 2009 by Stacy Crinks

While consumers and small businesses tweet away, large businesses struggle to determine their corporate and product-level social media strategies. Should each product group have its own blog, Facebook fan page, and Twitter account? Who is responsible for ensuring that each product term has an accurate wiki? We recommend that corporate marketing departments develop high-level social […]

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Top Five Must-Have Marcom Assets for Fall ’09

Thursday, September 24th, 2009 by Stacy Crinks

Friends, Certain asset types have been particularly popular this year. Through a skinny budgeting cycle, these projects have remained on the marketing manager’s to-do list—mostly because salespeople continue to clamor for them. Top Five Must-Have Marcom Assets for Fall ’09: Playbook. What’s not to love about an easy-to-read guide that helps field and channel partners […]

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Splendora

Thursday, September 17th, 2009 by Stacy Crinks

We are a serious technology marcom copywriting agency. That doesn’t prevent us from going gaga over great consumer-focused advertorials authored by the genius girlfriends at Splendora of San Francisco. CEO Gina Pell describes Splendora’s voice: “We’re Cat Deely meets Tim Gunn.” Plus a lot of Gina. Sassy first—to grab your attention. Then informative. You can’t […]

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How Do I Use the Subjunctive?

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009 by Lisa Stonestreet

Your Highness: As part of my job in a large corporation, I must communicate in writing with my colleagues and customers. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, holding as I do a degree from a fancy business school and all, but here goes: When it comes to grammar, I’ve been faking it for 34 […]

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Want to See Your Company’s Future? Show Me the Wiki.

Thursday, August 27th, 2009 by Todd Nocera

Wikipedia rules the Internet. It’s a more popular information source than CNN and Yahoo News and, with more than three million articles, its pages appear in top-ten search results well over 90% of the time (some reports put the figure as high as 97%). Not bad for a website that’s existed for a mere eight […]

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USA Today

Thursday, August 20th, 2009 by Chris Kent

USA Today. McPaper. The newspaper with the cutesy graphics and not much copy. The one you trip over when you leave your hotel room, and the one you take from the flight attendant when they’ve run out of the Times or the Journal.  USA Today gets no respect. Agreed, it’s nowhere near as satisfying a […]

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Welcome to the Content Bureau Blog

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009 by Stacy Crinks

Welcome! We hope you’ll enjoy the Content Bureau’s take on the niche, riche world of technology marketing copywriting. Consider us the Scharffenberger Nibby Bar of the B2B marketing blogosphere—slim and elegant, perfectly packaged, and uniquely satisfying in a “smooth and crunchy at the same time” kind of way. Enjoy. And please let us know how […]

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