Friday, August 21, 2009

 

Friday Speakout: To Be or Not To Be, Guest Post by Michelle Dwyer

To Be or Not To Be

by Michelle Dwyer

Like most college students, I had to take upper-level, intensive writing classes to graduate. And I dare say that most upper-level, intensive writing professors hate the dreaded “be” verbs. Those short words that provide the oxygen needed to breathe—the words that seem impossible to erase from our prose (am, I, are, was, were, be, being, been). So like many who have come before me, and who will come later, I worked hard to avoid such unwelcomed words in order to walk across the stage with a decent grade point average.

Abstaining from these words proved difficult enough. I didn’t need a professor who would take the term pet-peeve to a new level.

But that’s exactly what I got.

He docked an entire letter grade for every “be” verb he found in a student’s work. That’s right! Five “be” verbs on an assignment equaled a failing grade. He felt too many “be” verbs made papers too passive. (My guess is that some editors feel this way as well.) Needless to say I put in many hours of time and effort, many more of search and replace, and even more of total revisions.

I aced the class. I deserved to. And for the classes that followed, my papers carried a sharp, crisp, tight flow. My education definitely made me a better writer.

However something happened to me when I graduated. I got lazy and started writing extremely passive when delving into my fiction work. Fiction evokes passions, makes writing fun. Why cloud it with such a thing as attention to detail, right? I mean, c’mon. I have to work at creating stories? Are you serious?

Yes.

I didn’t figure this out until my contest entries and articles failed to make the cut with everyone. For a while, instead of humbling myself enough to find out what I was lacking, I simply chalked it up to “the industry” and continued. I knew my writings had the merit to win contests and/or get published. But they weren’t great. It wasn’t until I took advantage of WOW!’s critique service did my articles and stories pop.

I began applying the advice (write with a more active voice) from the critiques to all of my work; hence, I have reverted back to catching those “bees”. I’ve since sold one nonfiction article, won my first writing contest, and placed as a runner-up in the most recent flash fiction contest with WOW!.

*And if anybody remembers from my last post, nonfiction doesn’t like me very much. So selling nonfiction is validation for sure.*

Now for the moral: I’m sure somebody can read this article and find some “be” verbs. I haven’t discovered perfection. I may never. Sometimes I’m too wordy, other times too fluffy. Sometimes I just need use “be” verbs. We all do, even accomplished authors. But every day I learn to respect the craft of writing a little more.

Embracing criticism doesn’t make a writer weak. It makes a writer write.


Michelle studied writing in high school and longed to become an author. But circumstances arose, causing her to join the military instead. However, she never gave up. She enrolled in writing school, finished her first crime novel, and will achieve her MBA this fall. She writes as Krymzen Hall at http://www.helium.com/users/421563/show_articles



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Do you want to reach WOW’s audience? We welcome short posts (500 words or less) from writers just like you! You can include your bio, pic, and links to your website/blog for promotion. Our only requirement is that your post be about women and writing. Send your Friday “Speak Out!” post to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration.


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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

 

Voice Debates

Following a previous blog post, Hung Up on MS Word’s Tools? You’re not Alone!, a blog reader pointed out: “But as much as it is preached that you should avoid passive tense, there are times when it serves a purpose.” That’s a good point, and we know this is true. As writers we struggle to string words together into carefully designed sentences to make the biggest impact. It all depends on our intended meaning in any given context.

Microsoft Word and other grammar checkers “accuse” us of poor writing habits when we write in passive voice. But software programs can’t make distinctions between our intended meanings and our sentences constructions. Writers alone decide the right places to use passive or active voice. Our jobs just aren’t easy!

We know that passive voice tells us what is done to the subject; active voice tells us who’s doing what. Naturally, passive sentences use more words than their active counterparts. In certain contexts, passive sentences fail to emphasize or name the actor in the sentence. For example, it’s the preferred construction in many political crises to avoid naming the wrongdoer. How often has the public read statements like: “Mistakes were made.” Who made the mistakes and what were they? Was it President Bush? What did he do this time?

In college writing classes, students learn to avoid passive voice. I used to teach that passive voice subverts normal word order and bogs down the writing. That sounds negative, but it had no place in academic essays and research papers; it tended to fall under the category of “padding” the paper until students could reach the right word count range or paper length. It was a general requirement course, and not too many students thrived in it.

Of course, we know that passive voice is preferred in the science, technical, and other writing arenas. My husband thrives in an engineering field. He writes in passive voice all the time, and if he asks me to edit any part of his work, I tend to rewrite. It’s a habit for me, and it’s a bad one in this situation. Changing from passive to active doesn’t always sound right. In these cases, his writing ends up losing cohesion.

I think active voice in blog posts and ezines provides a sense of immediacy. It conveys meaning in a concise manner, essentially taking the reader from Point A to Point B in a straight line, or the shortest possible string of words.

This brings me to a big question. How many WOW! readers dabble in these and other fields where passive voice is a necessary part of the writing you do? We’d love to hear from you. We’d love to hear from readers on this subject in more detail. How does passive or active voice apply to your professional writing? For what type of job? Technical? Other? Copy writers?

For fiction writers, how do you decide on active versus passive? Is active voice the best for fiction? I’d love to hear from all writers!

Sue

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Monday, October 08, 2007

 

Hung up on MS Word’s Tools? You’re not Alone!



Whatever article I’m writing, the little MS Word leprechaun gets into my head. I don’t know if you all do this, but if you don’t, I’m sorry to have mentioned it!

I specifically use it to check for passive sentences, and I challenge myself to get 0% in every article I write. Most of the time this is impossible because MS Word doesn’t understand phrases and terms that are common to us, but not real to them. For instance, it still doesn’t consider “blogging” a real word. And we know it most certainly is!

The Readability Statistics of MS Word includes:

Counts: the number of words, characters, paragraphs, and sentences in the document.

Averages: average sentences per paragraph, words per sentence, and characters per word.

Readability statistics: percentage of passive sentences in the document, Flesch Reading Ease score, Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.


To view these statistics and to make sure your writing is easy to read for the web, a blog post, or article you submit, here are some basic instructions:

• Go to the Tools menu and select Options.

• Click the Spelling & Grammar tab.

• Tick the Check grammar with spelling and Show readability statistics checkboxes.

• Click OK.

• Go to the Tools menu and select Spelling and Grammar (or with a Mac, select Show Readability Statistics.)

Now you can join the fun! Take an article you recently wrote, open it up in MS Word, and click on “Spelling and Grammar.” You’ll see a list of readability statistics. Here’s where I cross my fingers and expect to see 0% passive sentences. (So far, so good!)

Figuring out what the Statistics Mean:

Counts:

Words come first: This is always helpful when submitting an article to a publication, contest, or even trying to figure out how many words are in your blog post. This tool also counts the number of characters (a handy tool for meta-tags and SEO), how many paragraphs you’ve written, and how many sentences.

Averages:

Sentences Per Paragraph: When writing for the web you want to make sure that each paragraph is tight, and contains the least amount of sentences to make it digestible for web-friendly reading. Think of it in small chunks with easy-to-pick-out information contained in each paragraph.

Words Per Sentence: This section has a lot to deal with the readability level. For some reason, the shorter the sentences, the higher the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score. A general rule is that there should be no more than 15-20 words per sentence. Go figure.

Now, onto my favorite (and addicting) part...

Figuring out what the Readability Statistics Mean:

This area is all about your writing style and how it relates to your readers.

Passive Sentences: The statistics state that if the percentage is higher than 15% then you’ve written something pretty terrible and completely mushy in language. Like I said, this is my challenge in every article that I write. I strive for 0% and pretty much hit it every time when I’m writing an article, sans interview. Believe it or not, so far this article is at 0%--even with all my adjectives!

Flesch: If the Flesch Reading score is greater than 65%, or the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score is greater than 5-7 (for younger readers), 5-9 (general readers), or 7-12 (literary readers) then you need to reexamine your article and see if it’s fit for the publication you’re writing it for.

The Flesch levels also count for reading speed. The simpler and shorter the sentence the higher the score. With our readers, I don’t necessarily account for these statistics, because you’re all writers! But when writing for a younger publication, or copywriting, or a general blog, you may want to consider these numbers.

Challenge:

Open up an article you recently wrote, or a blog post.

Tell us the percentages of your Passive Sentences, Flesch Reading Score, and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.

Pretty soon you’ll be addicted to judging your articles on Passive Sentences! Even with all this blabbering, I had to make a point. It’s not that hard to rearrange your sentences to come out hitting 0%. Now I challenge you to make a 0% passive sentence article!

(See this article's statistics in the picture above)

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