My number #1 writing tip

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Happy New Year! This is the first post of 2019 and it’s something a little bit special.

To start off the year in style, I’d like to share the best piece of writing advice I have ever been given. It’s a tip I was given as a teenager and it has stuck with me ever since.

So, without further ado, here’s my number one writing tip:

Work out what you want to say first, and then just say that.

It sounds obvious, I know, but stay with me.

As writers, we often launch straight into the ‘words on the page’ part of writing, before we’ve got our message clear in our heads.

This is the cause of so many common writing problems. When you come across writing that’s confusing or far too wordy, it’s likely that the writer wasn’t sure what they were trying to say.

Writing is all about communication, so you need to know the message you’re trying to communicate. If the writer isn’t exactly sure what they’re saying, the reader isn’t going to be sure either.

Using this tip

So, next time you’re stuck with your writing, ask yourself, ‘What do I want to say?’

This will force you to stop and work out exactly what you’re trying to communicate to your reader. This is the hard part. Be specific. Reduce it down to the simplest words.

Once you’ve worked out what you want to say, just say that.  You don’t need to add in any extra words to make it sound fancier. You don’t need to cloak it in a complicated sentence structure. Just write down what’s in your head.

It could be, ‘We aren’t sure when we’ll be able to open the shop again’, or ‘You need to go to the post office to collect a new form.’ Whatever it is, just write it down.

It might need a few little tweaks, but it’s likely to be much clearer than what you had before. Try it yourself and you’ll see what I mean.

The beauty of this tip is that it’s so easy. Once you get in the habit of using this tip, you’ll start doing it automatically and it’ll make such a difference.

So there you have it. My number one piece of writing advice. Work out what you want to say, and then just say that.

Following this advice has improved my writing no end. I hope it helps you too.

 

Thank you for reading and for kicking off 2019 with me here on Write for Real People. Come back for new writing tips every Monday morning- I can’t wait.

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Christmas

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Can you believe it’s Christmas Eve?!

If, like me, you’re still in the office, I hope you’ve got a mince pie on your desk and Michael Bublé on the radio.

There’s no writing tip today. I’d just like to wish you a very happy Christmas. I hope you have a wonderful day celebrating with the people you love.

To get you in an extra festive mood, here’s one of my favourite Christmas clips:

Happy Christmas!

Workshop: Using the passive voice

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The passive voice is finally having its moment. It may not be as dynamic or direct as the active voice, but as we’re about to find out, it does have its special uses.

Let’s take a look at this letter:

Using the passive 1It’s clear, concise and to the point, but perhaps it’s a little on the harsh side. It sounds almost as though poor Mrs Witherby has done something wrong.

The writer has used the active voice throughout the letter. In most scenarios, the active would be the best choice, but there’s a rather accusing tone to it here.

Using the passive 2

This is one of those rare occasions when it’s better to be indirect. The passive voice is great for taking the edge off an accusation and that’s exactly what we need here.

Using the passive 3

By using the passive voice, we’ve softened the tone and let Mrs Witherby off the hook. It’s a much less confrontational letter as a result.

 

The active voice or the passive voice. Which one do you naturally gravitate towards? Let us know in the comments below:

Using the passive voice

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In the last couple of blogs, we’ve been singing the praises of the active voice. So clear. So direct. So full of energy.

But this week, it’s the passive voice’s time to shine.

As much as we’ve been slating the passive voice for its ambiguity, sometimes that’s exactly what you need. Here are three situations when the passive voice can save the day:

 

  1. The Whodunnit

Sometimes, you just don’t know who did it. The passive voice is the ideal option when there’s no clear ‘doing’ person.

For example:

My car was stolen on Wednesday.

The house was built in 1876.

 

  1. The Sensitive Subject

If you’re writing about a difficult topic, the passive voice can be a gentle way to avoid awkwardness. Perhaps it’s an uncomfortable topic for the reader. Maybe you are reprimanding the reader but don’t want to sound confrontational.

In these situations, the active voice can sound a little harsh:

The dentist will make an incision in your gum and pull the tooth out using plyers.

You have not paid your electric bill, so we will be cutting off your electricity.

The passive voice softens the tone:

An incision will be made in the gum and the tooth will be removed using plyers.

As the electricity bill has not been paid, the electricity supply will be cut off.

Beware of using the passive too much when you’re cautioning or criticising the reader. It can all too easily sound passive aggressive.

 

  1. The Dodge

When you or your organisation have messed up, the passive voice is one way of dodging the full force of the blame.

The active voice forces you to identify the culprit, even if it’s you:

We have lost your application and did not keep a copy on file.

The passive voice allows you to skulk in the shadows a bit:

Unfortunately, your application has been lost and a copy was not kept on file.

It’s a good trick to know for emergencies, but use with caution. As tempting as it may be to keep pulling the passive out, it’s often overused. Readers tend to appreciate a direct confession rather than a vague dodge.

 

So, there you have it. The active voice is usually the way to go, but the passive voice does have its uses.

Come back on Thursday to see the passive voice taking centre stage in our Write for Real People Workshop.

Workshop: Using the active voice

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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:

Using the active voice

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…

Using the active voice 2The 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:

Using the active voice 3By 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…