Let zombies help you write better

I was surprised when my virtual colleague Josh Bernoff suggested that zombies can help us write better. Okay, that’s not exactly what he said—I’ll get to that in a minute—but that was the clear implication.

Zombies can help us write better, even though they don't actually exist.

Is that second sentence really necessary?

I’m not generally a fan of zombies. I always leave the room when the spousal unit turns on The Walking Dead. And if I should happen to walk by, whenever I happen to walk by, the only dialogue I ever hear is “Aaaarrggghhh.” I would love to see a script. Do the writers spell it differently to indicate different emotions? Do zombies even have emotions?

You know what else doesn’t have emotions? A sentence with a passive verb. That’s one of the reasons passive verbs are the verb of choice for people who don’t want to admit anything. They’re trying to bore us to death:

“Mistakes were made.”

Really? Who made them?

One linguist has dubbed this the “past-exonerative” tense. Nobody trots it out when they want credit for something. You’re not going to find any politician solemnly intoning, “Tax breaks were given.” Or, for that matter, a parent saying, “A trip to DisneyWorld was planned.”

No! You call a press conference, you hire a marching band, you win the Super Bowl and shout:

“We’re going to DisneyWorld!”

There’s emotion in that sentence; the exclamation point practically demands inclusion.

To write better, write with emotion—and active verbs

Writing designed to move people to action requires emotion. Emotion turns a string of words into a story. If you’re not conveying emotion, if you’re not telling a story, no one will remember what you’ve said or written. And you want people to remember your words, right? If not, why are you writing them?

And that brings us back to zombies, and to my virtual colleague Josh Bernoff. Josh and I both campaign actively against passive verbs. My weapon in this fight is a little something I call my “$100,000 Writing Lesson”—and I will send you a copy free of charge if you click the link.

Josh’s weapon, presented in an amusing infographic on his blog, is an easy-to-remember exercise. If you find yourself wondering whether a verb is passive or active, just insert two words at the end of the sentence. To wit:

Mistakes were made by zombies.

When you add a subject (zombies), the sentence makes sense. So we’ve identified a passive verb—and possibly an actual line from The Walking Dead.

We’re going to DisneyWorld by zombies!

The sentence already has a subject, so adding another to it turns it into nonsense. An active verb! And a trip to DisneyWorld! (No, actually, I’m in San Diego right now.)

Thanks to Josh and his zombies for showing us all how we can write better.

  • storytelling
  • writing