I agreed to copy edit four Urban Planning masters theses this year, and looked at early versions of several more. This is a way I can help students who have contributed fantastic work to CoLab. Plus, I wrote my own thesis a few years ago, and I know how the words start to swim around on the page after four months of trying to say the perfect thing.
I found similar mistakes across the drafts: word repetitions; inconsistent verb tenses; pronoun and antecedent issues; reliance on unfortunate sentence structures, such as “Not only _________, but also ___________.”; and, most common, an onslaught of passive voice.
Passive voice is problematic for urban planners for two reasons. First, it sounds bad. This sentence:
A new transit stop was demanded by the neighborhood council.
would obviously sound better in the active voice:
The neighborhood council demanded a new transit stop.
But second — and this is where the passive voice moves from grammatical tragedy to societal tragedy — writing in passive voice excuses the actors that make things happen in communities. The most prevalent form I found followed this structure:
A new transit stop was demanded.
Who demanded it? This kind of sentence rejects the fact that real individuals and organizations take actions to change communities. Councils, elected officials, neighborhood associations, citizen groups, businesses, developers and the like do things that impact places.
This sentence makes it seem like a little cartoon thought-bubble labeled ‘transit demand’ floated up and out of some neighborhood and hovered there until a transit stop appeared. That’s not what happened. We all know that some people wanted the stop and some didn’t. Those who cared about it had arguments. Racism, ageism, and gentrification may have been involved in the history of the stop location. Ultimately, a specific and identifiable group made the demand.
Writers: you have done enough research to know who demanded the transit stop. Just remember to tell us. Writers are responsible for using language that assigns actions to the individuals and entities who took them.
Post by Alexa Mills.