Every Word Counts: Writing for the Digital Era

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John kicks the ball. Photo by Iris Dimmick/

The Gutenberg press is acclaimed as the most significant technological development of the second millennium because it put the power of mass communication in the hands of the people. As humankind entered the third millennium, this paradigm shift happened again with the graphic, then mobile Internet.

Writing for People who Would Rather Scan than Read

Today, people access global information from the smartphones in their pockets, but the most common search is for directions to the nearest retail store. We are ever more connected to a constant stream of words yet – and it’s hard for a writer to write this – people don’t read, they scan. People scan pixelated words on a screen to find the data they are seeking. They watch videos, but not for more than a minute or two. They listen to music they program for themselves, tune in for a few minutes of news. People are in constant mental motion, moving from one screen to the next, one site to the next, grabbing bytes on the go.

Great Words Catch Their Drift

Which is why words are more important than ever. Creative communication starts with an idea, organized with a structure built of words. If your reader is going to jump to a conclusion based on a glance at your message, you must be certain you have compelling ideas articulated with focused, singularly effective expression. Pay attention to the words, make sure each phrase supports your point. You never know which one is going to reach your reader and carry the message.

The “Part of Speech” that Empowers Your Whole Life

A simple technique taught in middle school can help you write anything and catch your audience's short attention span. If you extend its most important lesson, it can empower your life.

According to one of the best teachers I have ever known, the traditional curriculum teaches grammar and composition just before high school and you never cover the subject again. However, the process of diagramming sentences holds the key to writing. If you can remember subject – predicate – object, you can write anything.

And – here’s the bonus – if you can remember that active predicates make better sentences, you can write anything well, and live more vibrantly. Because subject – predicate – object extends far beyond the sentence, and an active predicate empowers beyond measure.

You Cannot Activate Your Sentence with a Passive Predicate

"John" kicks the ball. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

I suppose we need an example to illustrate. My favorite involves John and the ball. You remember the ball:

The ball was kicked by John.

Poor ball. But wait – it wasn’t the ball’s fault. Look:

John kicked the ball.

When John takes responsibility for hitting the ball, and we can state it forthrightly, he can run around the bases. If we have to obscure responsibility with “was hit by,” the ball may have gone foul; and John probably missed the next pitch and struck out. This is the classic example of a passive predicate. Note: when people insist on consistent use of passive predicates, they are often avoiding responsibility. Maybe the ball went through someone’s window.

Find the “Is, Was, Will Be” that Hides Your Predicate

When I was explaining this to Chuck one night at band practice, he stopped me at the word “predicate” and said, “The verb, right?” And he’s correct – the predicate in a sentence is a verb, and there are two kinds of verbs: action verbs (hit, run, swing, catch) and state-of-being verbs, primarily “to be” (is, was, will…). Let’s not get too heavily into this, but I love “e-prime” a form of English that eliminates the “to be” verbs in all their forms. Like nirvana, I have never quite achieved it, but keep practicing.

Writing Beyond the Sentence, Living Beyond State of Being

One more comment about subject – predicate – object and then we will move on to the life lesson. Words in English often follow the same pattern: a consonant travels across a vowel toward another consonant. The word begins, changes, and concludes. A paragraph carries a single thought. In the first sentence, we establish the subject. In the second, something affects the subject. In the third sentence, we describe how the subject was changed.

Beginning – movement – end = subject – predicate – object.

Extend a little more: in an essay, we write a summary or thesis introduction that says everything we are going to prove in the essay. In news stories, that process is even more extreme – we try to deliver the “who what when where why” in the first 20 words, aka “the lead.”

Then we proceed. We thoroughly discuss the subject, how things were. During the essay or story, something happens to change how things were and leads to the conclusion, how everything ended up. “Something happens” – the predicate. Predicate (definition) itself has a verb form, often used in the passive, “The outcome was predicated upon a Supreme Court decision.”

If you have a dramatic, active predicate in the middle of your essay or story, it’s very exciting, and the conclusion is earth-shaking, mind-boggling, transformative. If the predicate merely expostulates what “is,” a state of things, it’s unlikely that anything changed. No wonder nobody reads it.

Being the Active Predicate

And that’s how active predicate teaches us how to live. When an exciting new friend or associate asks, “and what do you do?” what do you tell them? Do you say, “I’m a writer,” or “I’m an accountant” or “I am a spiritual director?” Change that just a little by deleting the state of being verb. “I write concise, compelling copy.” “I track financials, prepare taxes and keep my clients balanced.” “I breathe and sing and teach and share with a community of growing, evolving people.”

Write. Track. Balance. Breathe. Sing. Share. Live your occupation, love your life actively. It certainly beats a passive stand that goes nowhere.

San Antonio copywriter gary s. whitford was born to write. He played Scrabble with his mother and grandmother, wrote poetry on his first typewriter and has no choice but to follow the muse when it strikes. He has worked as a weekly newspaper editor, a creative director for a multimedia firm and freelancer for agencies and non-profits in San Antonio. He studies the craft of communicating with words as they flow through ever-evolving technologies. This is the first article of his column, Every Word Counts, which will appear in the Rivard Report every weekend. For more of gary’s writing, see his personal blog or his company website – Extraordinary Words.

6 thoughts on “Every Word Counts: Writing for the Digital Era

  1. Quite informative. You bring grammar to life, Gary. I particularly enjoyed your use of picturesque words. I must admit, I am a little self-conscious as I write this…darn, there’s that ‘am’ word!

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