Passive verbs can do real damage — Jackson Katz

I’ve always hated passive verbs. But this week, a man I’ve never heard of named Jackson Katz gave me another reason to loathe them.

Did you notice or read about the social media hashtag #metoo this week? Apparently the campaign predates social media—activist Tarana Burke created it 10 years ago as a way of connecting with survivors of sexual abuse. But it acquired its # this week, revived by the furor around Harvey Weinstein’s decades-long abuse of his power and his penis.

Soon, it seemed like every woman with a social media account had shared her experiences of sexual harassment and/or abuse, with the easily searchable #metoo connecting them us—yes, #metoo—in a digital web.

And then something came across my Twitter feed—an excerpt from some writing by Jackson Katz.

Jackson Katz wrote this

I’ll type it out for those of you who can’t see the graphic:

“We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls in a school district were harassed last year, not about how many boys harassed girls. We talk about how many teenage girls in the state of Vermont got pregnant last year, rather tahn how many men and boys impregnated teenage girls.

So you can see how the use of the passive voice has a political effect. [It] shifts the focus off of men and boys onto girls and women. Even the term ‘violence against women’ is problematic. It’s a passive construction. There’s no active agent in the sentence. It’s a bad thing that happens to women, but when you look at that term ‘violence against women,’ nobody is doing it to them. It just happens to them…Men aren’t even a part of it!”

Thank you, Jackson Katz

I’m a word person—been one for a long time. And I’m ashamed to say I never noticed this.

The language we use to describe abuse, domestic violence, rape, and sexual harassment completely erases men—who are in most cases the perpetrators of the above-mentioned actions.

I’ve written before about writer Josh Bernoff’s tip for rooting out passive verbs: If you can add the phrase “by zombies” and the sentence still makes sense, you’ve got a passive verb.

Let’s put one of Dr. Katz’s examples to the test:

 We talk about how many women were raped last year [by zombies.]

Nope. Zombies aren’t raping women—for the most part that would be men. And if I remember my middle school biology correctly, it’s 100% men doing the impregnating. Why do we continue to use language that absolves them of responsibility?

I always encourage you to pay attention to passive verbs. Today I especially encourage you to pay attention to passive verbs we use when we talk about women. Shine the spotlight where it belongs—on the people creating these various “crimes against women” and perhaps we can create a more just and equitable society. One word at a time.

Like what you’re reading? Click here to keep in touch—and I’ll send you my “$100,000 Writing Lesson” as thanks.

Nothing to fear but fear itself?

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

fear itself
By USCapitol – Franklin D. Roosevelt’s First Inauguration, Public Domain

Like most things in life, the truth of FDR’s famous quote turns out to be not quite as attractive as the words burned into our brains by decades of misquoting: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Ah…I wish this post were about President Franklin Roosevelt’s first inaugural address. But it’s not. It’s about me. Because I’m always telling you how important authenticity and transparency are, I have to be authentic and transparent with you now.

Fear itself

I talk a lot about fear. So much, in fact, that some of you may believe I’ve conquered it.


Fear is quite the shape-shifter. You beat it back in one form and it comes back in another; you learn to use one set of tools against it and it learns to work around those tools. Or worse, to use them against you.

I once had such a strong fight-or-flight reaction that the only way I could stay put (and I needed to stay put) was to imagine that my feet were encased in a bucket of cement.

I stayed put. And I got the job, too. Needless to say, that wouldn’t have happened if I’d let Fear win that round.

So I’ve adapted to some of the tactics Fear uses to stop me from creating, but I can still find myself reduced to tears by fear of doing something new.

Do I keep doing new things? You betcha.

And so should you.

My most recent fear—a fear that reduced me to tears only a few days ago—was, at bottom, fear of not doing something well. Of getting a C on the great pop quiz of life.

Of course, I’m not going to be perfect all the time. Or maybe even ever. And especially not the first time I do something.

So when Fear perches on the corner of your desk, looks deeply into your eyes and suggests that you Stop—take a deep breath and tell Fear to take a hike. Keep your fingers hovering over the keyboard, pressing down one by one. Make words appear where there were no words before.

Because you’re not alone. Ever. Anyone who’s ever created has been there. And have you read a book lately? A magazine article or blog post? Words on a screen or words on paper—those are proof. Proof that we can beat Fear Itself. And be imperfect. And go through the cycle again.

Want to communicate more courageously? Click here to get my e-book Do It Anyway: Tips for Courageous Writing

Golden brandcuffs — the downside of commitments

golden brandcuffsYou’ve heard of golden handcuffs? They’re a series of payouts timed over a long period—the corporate world’s way of keeping key executives from straying. I don’t have golden handcuffs keeping me here at Bennett Ink. But I do seem to have forged myself a pair of golden brandcuffs.

I was taking some Me Time on Sunday evening. I’d just spent an exhausting three days at a conference. Valuable stuff, but my mental gastank was pinned on E.

Despite that, after the last session ended I had to pound out a speech for a client. I had definitely earned that baseball-watching time.

Maybe, I found myself thinking, maybe that two hours I spent writing for my client could count as my 15 minutes for today? That’s not the commitment I’d made to myself 538 days earlier—I’d promised to count only non-client writing. But I was mentally fried. And there was baseball on the television machine.

And then I saw that Julia Wu, one of the writers in my Writing Unbound class, had posted a piece in our Facebook group and on her Medium blog. A meditation on what makes a brand. The brand examples she cited included this one:

“A writing coach who centers her business around the word daily: daily practice and daily publishing.”

And off the couch I got. So what if it’s a tie ballgame? The Cubs had a 50% chance of losing it, and did I really need to see the Cubs lose again?

Choosing the golden brandcuffs

Now, obviously I forged these golden brandcuffs all by myself; I choose to write and publish daily. But Julia Wu’s salute to my daily habits came at an interesting moment.

The coach I was working with this weekend insists we should spend no more than two hours a week creating content. Although I’ve only committed to 15 minutes a day, I probably average something closer to 30; the longer posts may creep up to an hour. So I’m at upwards of 3.5 hours of content-creation—not counting marketing emails and my Occasional Flashes of Brilliance.

Of course, I could always blog on my own time. Problem is, when you’re a solopreneur, every minute is your “own time.” And this quarter I’m trying to spend at least 20 hours a week having a—what’s it called?—life.

Still, it’s not every day you build a recognizable brand. Maybe it’s worth investing the extra time to maintain it?

I don’t know. What do you think? Scroll down and let me know.

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How will you celebrate October 20th, National Day on Writing?

Q: How will you celebrate National Day on Writing on October 20th?
A: National say what now?

This Friday—October 20th—is National Day on Writing. Of course every day here at Bennett Ink is a writing day, as I blogged this summer. Still, I’ll take any excuse for a party, so I’ve been trying to figure out just how to celebrate with you.

Another writing challenge? Been there, done that. Will do it again in our regularly scheduled slot at the end of the quarter. But no, I wanted something different for us to mark the holiday.

I thought about sending you all out into the world with the same writing prompt, for the fun of seeing how differently each writer interprets it. But that didn’t feel quite right either.

Finally it came to me: A community writing project. Simple. Minimal time commitment. But potentially tons of fun. So announcing…

October 20th — the first annual Bennett Ink Community Writing Project

  • “Like” my Bennett Ink Facebook page
  • On the morning of October 20th I will post the beginning of a story on the Bennett Ink page
  • Click the comments to add your own sentence to the sentences that came before.
  • Visit the page as often as you like during the day to add to the story.
  • I’ll collect all the comments and publish our community story on the Facebook page on Saturday.
  • (I’ll also be monitoring the comments, so please flag anything you feel is inappropriate.)

When I was a kid, we used to take loooong car rides. Eventually the sun would go down and I’d have to stop reading. Occasionally, we’d play the group storytelling game. But with only my mother and I participating (my father focused on the road), surprises remained minimal.

So hop in the car and join us anytime at all on October 20th. And bring your friends. Let’s see what we can create together. And thanks to the preposition-happy National Council of Teachers of English for creating National Day on Writing and the glorious hashtag #WhyIWrite.

Let’s tell a story together on Friday!

When Do “We Need a Little Christmas”? — Song for a Sunday

After more than two decades as a professional writer, I’ve come to the conclusion that some words carry so much power that they can erase people’s short-term memories. “Christmas” is one of those words. And the song “We Need a Little Christmas” serves as Exhibit A.

It’s from Mame, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. We’re introduced to the title character as a high-flying member of 1920s New York society. But then the stock market crashes in late October 1929 and she loses everything. Not being one to dwell in negativity, Mame throws a party and decorates the house for the most festive holiday she can think of:

Haul out the holly;
Put up the tree before my spirit falls again.
Fill up the stocking,
I may be rushing things, but deck the halls again now.
and a few lines later:
It hasn’t snowed a single flurry,
But Santa, dear, we’re in a hurry;
These are what we call clues. Clues that it is not, in fact, Christmas. Yet singers of all stripes trot this song out at Christmastime. Drives me crazy. The lyric
We need a little Christmas
Right this very minute
makes no sense on December 21st. I mean, what? You can’t hold off for four more days? Three if you celebrate on Christmas Eve.

A Little Christmas & Valentine’s Day, Too

Why, you may be wondering, am I ranting about this in October? I recently ran across a video of an indie folksinger doing a very lovely rendition of the song—at a Christmas party. I’m not linking to her video here because Lord knows she’s far from the only performer who’s ever sung the song in December.
Besides—give the audience what they want. Audiences hear the word “Christmas” and they expect to hear the song at Christmas.
Same thing with “My Funny Valentine.” That’s also from a show—Babes in Arms, music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Lorenz Hart. It’s been a long time since that show premiered in 1937, so most people don’t know that Valentine is the name of the male romantic lead in the show.
But the closing line contains one of those phrases that obliterates all that’s gone before. When the ingénue in the show sings
Each day is Valentine’s day
she’s talking about her devotion to the dude named Valentine. Not about the holiday around which this song has become inescapable.
Honestly, if I could time-travel back to 1936, I would shake Larry Hart by the shoulders—hard—and say, “Don’t do it, man! If you name your character ‘Valentine,’ your lovely ballad will become an oversung, saccharine piece of mush.”
Sadly, until someone loans me a souped-up DeLorean or a standard-issue Tardis, we’ll all just have to learn to live with “My Funny Valentine” on, you know, that day. And “We Need a Little Christmas” every freaking December.
But since it’s October, the song is seasonally appropriate. So enjoy your song for a Sunday:

Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join me for my popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about change.

15 minutes of commitment

By now, pretty much everybody in my life is used to my 15 minutes of writing a day. As I tell my writers when they start out,

If you respect your commitment, the people around you will respect it too.

15 minutesWhen I arrived at my cousin’s house the other day for a quick overnight before an early morning trip to the airport, I wanted to visit with her. But I also needed to write. So I did something I don’t usually do—I plopped down on the sofa to watch the baseball game with her (did I mention we’re related?) and I opened up my laptop. My cousin understood.

So instead of 15 minutes of focused writing, I did several innings’ worth of semi-distracted writing—the first time I’ve done that, but I don’t think it showed. Still, I’m glad I did it, because the question my cousin asked—well, the minute she asked it I knew I’d be blogging about it:

“Do you do this for yourself?”

15 minutes for me…and more

And I realized that the answer was both yes and no.

No—not in the sense she meant. She didn’t know about my blog (someone’s not reading her email; she subscribes to my Occasional Flashes of Brilliance). And I guess for a person who lives a very offline life, the idea of throwing upwards of 300 words into cyberspace every day seems a little baffling.

And yes, of course I do this for myself. My 15 minutes a day has made me a better writer. It’s helped me be braver about the topics I take on. And it’s helped me make a connection to you. I’ve enjoyed that.

My coach Samantha Bennett (no relation) suggested the 15 minutes a day format. My virtual mentor Seth Godin said that blogging every day is the best business decision he’s ever made. And who’s gonna look at Seth Godin’s career and not start blogging daily? Certainly not me.

So here we are, you and I and my 15 minutes of commitment. If you’ve ever thought about doing it, do it. Today. For yourself.

Want to communicate more courageously? Click here to get my e-book Do It Anyway: Tips for Courageous Writing

Katharine Hayhoe — stories drive change

“How can I talk to people who don’t accept the truth about climate change?” That may not be exactly what the audience member asked the dudes from Pod Save America on a recent episode, but it’s close enough. Their answer—again, not verbatim: Stories drive change.

The questioner had asked particularly about climate science: How can her relatives not understand the source of the havoc we are unleashing on our environment—catastrophic hurricanes, fires, flood. So far everything but a plague of locusts.

Usually those encounters go one of two ways:

  1. Are you crazy?
  2. The median temperature of the earth has risen X degrees in the last 20 years.

When’s the last time you had a productive conversation with someone who called you crazy?

I didn’t think so.

And when’s the last time you listened to someone rattle off a string of numbers and didn’t fall asleep? Or start thinking about something more interesting, like when you’re going to run out of clean underwear. Or whether the lettuce on sale will last more than a day and a half.

As I’ve said more than once, if you want people to remember what you’re saying you need to tell a story.

Stories drive change

stories drive change
Katharine Hayhoe and a friend, from her Twitter profile

One of the Pod Save America hosts, Tommy Vietor I think, mentioned a name I hadn’t heard before: Katharine Hayhoe. He said she has the ability to turn facts into stories that connect with people on the other side of the climate change debate. And more importantly, that her stories drive change.

Vietor isn’t the only member of the Katharine Hayhoe fan club:

“Katharine Hayhoe is a national treasure,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. He said that she combined powerful communications skills, world-class scientific credentials and an ability to relate to conservative religious communities that can be skeptical about the risks of a changing climate.

That’s from a 2016 New York Times article about her. So is this:

“…she has found that she gets her science across more effectively if she can connect with people personally. In a nation seemingly addicted to argument as a blood sport, she conciliates. On a topic so contentious that most participants snarl, she smiles. She is an evangelical Christian, and she does not flinch from using the language of faith and stewardship to discuss the fate of the planet.”

Use the language your audience speaks. Connect with the people you’re speaking with. Be human. Be vulnerable. Be authentic. And use concrete examples that everyone can understand.

Can stories drive change—really? Check out the quote from Hayhoe that closes the Times article:

“I don’t believe in climate change,” she said. Belief doesn’t come into it; scientific verification does.

“Gravity doesn’t care whether you believe in it or not,” she said, “but if you step off a cliff, you’re going to go down.”

Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join me for my popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about change.

Streaking — writers’ edition

streaking for writersStreaking — back in the ’70s it meant taking off all your clothes and running around in public buck naked. Don’t ask me why. But I’m guessing there was usually liquor involved.

My own version of streaking, as regular readers know by now, involves only metaphorical nakedness. Yesterday marked Day 534 of my writing streak.

But I’m not the only streaker around here. One of my writers has got a pretty good one going. On our group call the other day she mentioned she’d been writing every day. I asked if she’s been keeping track and she said yes.

So, I asked, how long is your streak?

“187 days.”

I would have shouted it from the rafters, but Dr. Jeffifer Shoemaker said it like it’s no big deal. Maybe she doesn’t have rafters. Well, she’s gonna reach 200 in a couple of weeks; maybe she can build some.

Streaking and celebrating

Apparently I’ve made my point about the benefits of writing daily. Now I guess I need to talk about celebrating.

Even an 8-day writing streak can be cause for celebration. Heck, if writing daily is a new habit for you, celebrate every freaking day. Celebrate every day until you get tired of it, and then find a new way to reward yourself.

Because it’s not every day we form a new habit—not every day we even try. So if you’re trying, you deserve to celebrate.

Just—if you’re doing it in public—try to keep your clothes on.

Like what you’re reading? Click here to keep in touch—and I’ll send you my “$100,000 Writing Lesson” as thanks.