On Monday we put on our grammar hats and looked at the difference between the active and passive voices. We also discovered that the active voice is usually the best way to go.
With all this new knowledge, we’re ready to start putting the active voice into action.
Here’s a letter that could do with our attention:
The writer has used the passive voice throughout this letter. Once you start using the passive, it’s hard to get out of the habit…
The result is a rather impersonal tone and a few key gaps in the information for the reader. It’s not clear who will be looking after the reader’s child. It all sounds a bit vague and uncaring, which is not exactly what you’d want for your child’s school.
Let’s see if we can help this writer bring some warmth and clarity back with the active voice:
By introducing the active voice, we’ve also introduced Mrs Gill, the teacher. Now we know who is going to be registering the children and taking them to their classroom.
We’ve also addressed the parents directly by asking them to bring and collect their children, rather than simply implying this via the passive voice. It’s all sounding much friendlier.
Using the active voice can transform your writing. Most of the time…
Come back on Monday for three dilemmas that only the passive voice can resolve…
If you need to get your reader’s attention, using the second person pronoun ‘you’ is a great place to start. It’s one of the most powerful and persuasive tools you have as a writer.
Compare these two examples:
For customers who need help setting up a mortgage, Wafflington Finance are here to talk them through it.
Do you need help setting up a mortgage? At Wafflington Finance we’re here to talk you through it.
The second example is much more effective. It prompts the reader to identify their need for the service and to imagine how it could help them in their own life.
Here are a couple of reasons why you might be avoiding ‘you’ (and why you shouldn’t):
1) Using ‘you’ feels informal
Perhaps if you’re used to more formal writing, addressing the reader as ‘you’ might take a bit of getting used to.
Now obviously, it’s not always appropriate to use ‘you’. If you are writing a piece of legal documentation or an academic essay, the second person pronoun might not really fit with the tone of the rest of the piece.
However, some writers have a tendency to be more formal than they need to be:
Visitors are asked to give their tickets to the guide at the door, who will show them to their seats.
It usually sounds much friendlier if you address the reader directly:
Please give your ticket to the guide at the door. They will show you to your seat.
This is still perfectly professional and appropriate, but it engages with the reader directly and is therefore more effective in getting the message across.
2) Using ‘you’ means being precise
Another reason you might be avoiding ‘you’ is because it means you have to be clearer. This is a good thing for the reader, but if you, the writer, aren’t exactly sure what you’re saying or don’t really want to say it, it’s tempting to avoid it.
For example, this writer has conveniently avoided giving any precise directions:
It has come to our attention that an incorrect delivery has been received. Unfortunately, our team are unable to collect the item, so the item should be posted to our customer services team. The correct item should be received within six weeks.
The writer is trying to gloss over the fact that the company has made a mistake and the customer will need to help fix it. They’ve been deliberately vague about who needs to post the item to the customer services team, for example.
In reality, it will be much more helpful for the customer to have clear instructions:
We’re sorry to hear that you have received the wrong item. Unfortunately, our team are unable to collect the item, so please post the item to our customer services team. You should receive the correct item within six weeks.
Using ‘you’ forces the writer to be upfront about the impact on the reader. Whether you’re giving information or instructions, it’s best to be as clear and direct as possible, even if this means acknowledging some awkward facts.
Come back on Thursday for some ‘second person pronoun’ fun in the Write for Real People Workshop…
On Monday we looked at some common mistakes with bullet points and how to fix them. Let’s see if we can use those tips to tidy up this piece of writing:
Bullet points can make a piece of writing easier to read. However, in this case, the writer has used them as a catch-all for various different points, rather than for one specific list. Every sentence is a bullet point, so the bullet points have much less impact.
To make the most of bullet points, the writer needs to identify a specific list within the text. Let’s pick out the points in the category ‘advice for customers’?
By using the bullet points for one specific section, we’ve given this piece of writing a better structure. The four bullet points are now much quicker to read. They also break the rest of the text up into clearer parts. We haven’t lost any of the meaning or demoted any of the information. We’ve just made each sentence more effective. It’s a win-win!
Have these tips about bullet points helped you give structure to your writing? Let us know in the comments below…