“Use the active voice.”
This advice, appearing prominently in The Elements of Style, has suffered at the hands of too many writing coaches who have remembered the phrase but forgotten the accompanying text, which perhaps explains the shock of many when reading Jakob Nielsen’s post, “Passive Voice is Redeemed for Web Headings.”
It was almost as if someone had also contradicted “write with strong verbs.” Heresy!
Of course, the really odd thing is that both of these so-called “writing tips” aren’t very actionable on their own. They offer good editing advice, but they’ll inadvertently steer you wrong as a writer.
Let me explain by relaying some advice from my high school swim coach. I was a lousy backstroker, with a flaccid flutter kick and stiff shoulders that weren’t double-jointed like most talented backstrokers’ were. But my turning point from gawd-awful to good arrived with this bit of wisdom from Coach Emery:
“Don’t worry about putting your pinkie in the water first; that’s bad advice. Just relax your arm and roll your body as you swing your arm back into the water. Your pinky will naturally enter the water first — without you worrying about it — and you’ll have better mechanics.”
Once I started focusing on the principles behind the mechanics — and not on the outer form of the mechanics — my entire stroke transformed. And while the swimming tip was helpful (thanks, Coach!), the idea behind the advice has proved more so.
If you’re observing good writing, you’ll notice a lot of active voice and strong verbs. But these things are actually the stylistic result of deeper principles behind the mechanics of the sentence. Consciously trying to use better verbs, or to write in the active voice, is kind of like consciously trying to put your pinky in the water first.
Here’s an example how a colorful verb alone won’t do the trick:
“He hit me.”
“He decked me.”
“He Steven Seagal’d my jaw.”
“His fist freight-trained into my upper lip, snapping my head back into darkness.”
“My nose snapped underneath his knuckles, pushing hard floor tiles cold against my cheek.”
Notice how the sentence hardly improved from the upgraded verb, but improved markedly with a more tightly-focused subject. Verb-wise, “Steven Seagal’d” and “freight-trained” are about on par (no matter how horrific Steven’s latest straight-to-video travesty may be) with one another, but the fourth and fifth sentences create sharper mental images.
Those sentences work better because their grammatical subjects suddenly coincide with the point of action (or impact, as it were). The subject is where the violence occurred, so the latter sentences better project that violence onto the reader’s imagination.
Had we wanted to emphasize the moral agency with which “he” chose to hit “me,” we would not use “his fist” or “my nose” as the subject. Instead, we would name the real agent of the violence like this:
“John’s aggression raised up along with his fists and, in an instant, sent a flurry of stiff jabs into my teeth.”
Despite the commonplace to ‘use strong verbs,’ a powerful verb tied to a week subject will only spin its wheels. Choosing the right subject foregrounds the action in the mind of the reader. So the real question you need to answer is this:
That’s how you focus on rolling your shoulder instead of putting your pinkie in the water. And oddly enough, this is exactly what Strunk & White advise us to do in their rightly famous book:
“This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.
- ‘The dramatists of the Restoration are little esteemed to-day.’
- ‘Modern readers have little esteem for the dramatists of the Restoration.’
The first would be the right form in a paragraph on the dramatists of the Restoration; the second, in a paragraph on the tastes of modern readers. The need of making a particular word the subject of the sentence will often, as in these examples, determine which voice is to be used.“
And that’s exactly the advice required to bring mediocre or weak sentences up to snuff. For example:
“She walked languidly and suggestively down the stairs and greeted her guests.”
This sentence lamely attempts to convey the sexual overtones of the lady’s descent down the stairs through the use of adverbs. So standard advice is, “replace adverbs with better verbs” — and that’s OK advice, which yields something like this:
“She cat-walked her way down the stairs, enchanting each of her male guests in turn.”
Not bad. You may be getting sick of it already, but my newly coined verb (“cat-walked”) seems to help. At least until you compare that sentence to this:
“Her hips swayed with each step, beckoning her guests’ attention.”
“Her suitors’ eyes tracked each sway of her hips and every unveiling of leg as she Mae-Wested her way down the stairs”
Finally, here’s something a little more business-related:
“The average Direct Condo rental saves an amazing 15%”
“$2,500 buys a lot of lift tickets — and that’s what most customers save when they rent through condos direct.”
“$2500 — our customers’ average savings — could wing its way into your bank account, when you price your next ski vacation through Condos Direct.”
So, despite the unorthodox nature of Jakob Nielsen’s and my advice, both adhere to a more nuanced interpretation of The Elements of Style. Focus on what you want to foreground in the mind of the reader, and you’ll easily find yourself writing in a more effective voice, choosing vivid, high-voltage verbs as needed.
(Thanks again, coach!)