Part 1: Precision Counts
The Writer’s Boot Camp
In grad school, the first story I submitted for workshop was returned with every passive construction-at least twenty on the first page alone-circled in red, the classmate-editor grinning smugly as he handed it over. For the first time in my writing life, I felt humiliated. How, my internal editor demanded, could I have been so stupid? Neglected so basic a rule?
To which the rebel lurking inside me shot back, Wait. Rules are meant to be broken.
And they are. Creativity is, after all, about expanding boundaries. Breaking rules.
Rules do, of course, have reason for being. Convention provides a structural foundation, a contract, which makes the written word easier to understand and gives readers a framework for understanding. When we break a rule we sever this contract and risk alienating readers.
Assuming we know the rules, the decision comes down to a calculus: do I care more about the integrity of the work or the comfort of readers? The answer may seem simple: obviously, the work. Really, it depends. Originality-Annie Proulx’s use of language, for instance-challenges us to reach beyond our comfort zone and rewards us with a deeper sense of meaning.
Flouting rules can also backfire. Let’s face it: most readers read for enjoyment. If we force them to work, and the reward isn’t enough to justify the effort, we’re likely to lose them. Remember: writing is a dialogue, not a monologue. We need readers as much as they need us.
Looking back, my peer-editor was correct in pointing out my overuse of passive voice. I learned from that mistake, and I’ve never forgotten the lesson. I’ve also learned that slavish attention to rules can stifle a writer. That, for me, made the lesson worth learning.
For us rebels, here are two touted rules that, in the right circumstances, we can flout with impunity.
Always write in the active voice.
In the active voice, the subject performs the action. The girls [subject/actors] tossed [action verb] the softball [object]. In the passive voice, the subject receives the action: The softball [subject/object] was tossed [passive verb] by the girls [actors].
Compare the sentences below, the first using passive voice, the second active.
At school, the young girl was taunted ruthlessly by bullies. That night, she was found in her room by her mother, crying herself to sleep. (25 words)
At school, the bullies taunted the young girl ruthlessly. That night, her mother found her in her room, crying herself to sleep. (22 words)
Generally, writers prefer the active voice because it’s more direct and dynamic than passive, which tends to be weaker, longer and wordier than the active voice.
(Note: the active voice may use an auxiliary verb: is, are, was, were, be, being, etc. The girls [actors] are tossing [verb] the softball [object].)
Generally, to produce strong, dynamic writing, use the active voice. Sometimes, though, as in the five examples below, the passive voice can be the smarter, better choice.
1) to emphasize the subject or the receiver of the action
The child was injured by the fall. The emphasis is on the child’s death, not on the fall.
2) when the performer of the action is unimportant
Campus security was overhauled to provide greater protection to students. The point is that security was overhauled; it doesn’t matter who did the work.
3) when the actor is unknown
A baby boy was left in a basket outside the hospital.
4) to avoid calling unwanted attention to the performer of a negative action
The bride’s mother was not invited to the shower. Perhaps, the bride’s mother being a monster, the bridesmaids intentionally left her off the guest list.
5) to maintain consistency
The girl was lost and alone. She wasn’t sure what to do or where to go. It was four o’clock, the sun just now beginning to set, and already she was cold.
Show, Don’t Tell
We’ve all heard the bromide ‘show don’t tell.’ Showing relies on concrete, sensory language–things we see, hear, smell, taste, or touch: tree, bell, smoke, hamburger, book. Concrete language paints word pictures, putting the reader into the moment:
‘The moon beamed through the skylight above the girl’s bed, and she lay, prostrate, in a pool of light, her legs spread, one arm flung over the mattress. She’d been dreaming, and her hair was damp . . .’
Abstract words, which exist in our mind, include ideas, conditions, and emotions: beauty, freedom, love, hate, fear. An overreliance on abstract language makes our work unconvincing. Readers may also disagree about meaning: What precisely do we mean by pretty? Nice? Wonderful? Free?
Compare: The girl had beautiful hair.
The girl’s long, lustrous hair cascaded over her shoulders.
She was too angry to speak. She didn’t know what to say. (Abstract/telling)
She slammed the book on the table, and pretended to read. (Concrete/showing)
Showing is powerful and puts the reader into the story. But telling is important too. Telling gives our work meaning and perspective. Consider this gorgeous passage, from Flannery O’Connor’s brilliant short story ‘Revelation’:
‘He has a ulcer,’ the woman said proudly. ‘He ain’t give me a minute’s peace since he was born.’ . . . ‘Look like I can’t get nothing down them two but Co’ Cola and candy.’
That’s all you try to get down em, Mrs. Turpin said to herself. Too lazy to fight the fire. There was nothing you could tell her about people like them that she didn’t already know. And it was not just that they didn’t have anything. Because if you gave them everything, in two weeks it would all be broken or filthy or they would have chopped it up for lightwood. She knew all this from her own experience. Help them you must, but help them you couldn’t.
Throughout the story, O’Connor shows Mrs. Turpin in action; this brief passage puts those actions in perspective. Because O’Connor writes concretely, readers sometimes misinterpret the author’s position. The passage not only tells us all we need to know about Mrs. Turpin, it also offers a rare glimpse into the mind of the author.
So, yes, weigh your options, know what you’re doing and why-and then go ahead: break the rules, if you want to.
Part 3: Why it’s Vital to Identify and Understand Purpose