Getting Technical About Creativity: Fixing Passive-Voice WordPress™ Boilerplate

Say bye-bye to “by Bobo”

There might not be any hard-and-fast rules to which writers must adhere at all times, but a common annoyance among both editors and readers is encountering passive voice in abundance. Creative license grants only so much leeway.

Too much experimentation risks authorial intrusion. Too little discipline appears lazy. When writers focus too much of their rhetorical attention on presumed objectivity, the objects of their sentences take over. For technical writers especially, a desire to disseminate objective information becomes a temptation to neglect the “by Bobo” rule of thumb.

How to recognize passive-voice sentence structure

A Creative Writing professor of mine at the University of Southern Mississippi offered students a straightforward way to keep a check on their creeping passive voice. This professor recommended that writers try to insert “by Bobo” into a sentence. If the grammatical structure remained coherent after the addition, at least one clause of the sentence was passive and the writer had a choice to make.

In general, writers should strive to compose a sentence’s primary clause in an active voice (e.g. “I paid my employee” as opposed to “My employee got paid”). After that, any remaining clauses are free from even the should shackles. The more creative a writer feels, the more they can ignore some or all of the loose rules, although all are bound by context. Technical writing, for one, offers few outlets for the kind of creativity that writers of fiction and poetry demand.

How to tame a software co-author

In a perfect world, software does whatever a user demands of it. There are no transhumanist relationships, so to speak, by which software controls the user’s behavior or makes the user appear less competent. Such a clear segregation of real and programmed duties maximizes perfect-world productivity.

The actual world where you and I live contains fallible humans who create likewise buggy software. Many software companies devote inadequate resources toward coordinating designs for UX (User eXperience) and qualified technical writing. This neglect results all too often in text strings which require, when possible, post-installation modification from users themselves.

As an example, observe the passive voice within boilerplate footer content which appears by default beneath each post that a blog author creates using one particular theme from the popular WordPress content management system.

Passive Voice

Bobo—not the blogger’s real name—was happy with almost everything about this initial post, but felt the need to contact me regarding one particular annoyance. I answered my phone on an otherwise pleasant day to hear: “How can I fix that ‘by Bobo’ garbage?”

Fortunately, I knew that delivering a solution would be simple. I understand something about WordPress, and about content-generating software in general, which Bobo does not. It is possible to locate the segments of underlying blogging-engine code from which such content gets auto-published, and then make wordsmithing adjustments as required.

How I helped Bobo

The key to editing WordPress code in a way that will be persistent across subsequent software upgrades is to create what is known as a child theme. Details of the process for establishing a child theme are beyond the scope of this article, but the basics include creating a new directory within the same directory that contains the parent theme directory from which you plan to base your child theme, copying all files from the parent theme into the new child theme’s directory, making desired edits within the files of the child theme, and then selecting that child from the appropriate administration screen to use as the customized theme for your blog.

As for the steps necessary to clean up a specific child theme, you can navigate to Appearance → Theme Editor from the WordPress admin screen. To help Bobo, I changed the boilerplate from passive voice to active voice, which you could do as well by following these active-voice instructions:

  1. Comply with the pop-up screen cautioning against direct edits to WordPress themes by asserting that you are a grownup who is willing to take responsibility for your actions.
  2. Ensure that you are about to edit only child theme files by selecting the appropriate child theme from the “Select theme to edit” drop-down options.
  3. Select Theme Functions (functions.php) from the “Theme Files” list.
  4. Conduct a Ctrl-F search within the functions file to find the phrase “was posted.”
  5. Edit relevant code within the functions file, from before to after as illustrated in the screenshots below.
    Code edits
  6. Click the Update File button to preserve your edits.
  7. Refresh the blog page to confirm that WordPress boilerplate displayed beneath the author’s content reflects an active-voice sentence structure.

After I completed this process—which entailed a minor rearrangement of text strings and variables— Bobo was good to go for posting confident content. The screenshot below illustrates the et-voila result of my child theme edits.

Active Voice

Bobo contacted me to express appreciation for my humble effort. I responded with my own appreciation for Bobo’s active-voice resistance to software-generated mediocrity. Consumer satisfaction is paramount, so if you want to minimize passive-voice sentence structure within your own content, be sure to contact AIS.