Seek And Destroy Your Writing Style Enemies

 This is part four in the five-part series “Getting Your Writing To Flow.”

The previous entries in this series focused on ways that structure affects flow.  I provided tips for structuring sentences and paragraphs (both a paragraph’s topic/wrap-up sentence and its mid-paragraph details) to improve flow.  In this post, I’ll focus on the choices a writer makes about which words and phrases he or she uses to construct sentences: a writer’s style.

When writers get to a certain comfort level with their writing, they sometimes get into bad habits.  For these writers, writing has become a tool that they use without thinking rather than an exciting, fresh experience of expression.  When that happens – and I think it happens to all of us at some point – we stop consciously making decisions about how we put sentences together in the name of “getting it done.”

As a result, a writer’s style often slides from the clear, albeit simplistic, style of the novice to the inexact, tortuous style of the apprentice.  Not “one step forward, two steps back,” exactly – more like one step forward and one step sideways. 

The two undesirable aspects of style that we will consider today are vagueness and wordiness.  The following tips will help you reframe the way you think about sentence construction so you can seek and destroy vague and wordy phrasing.  (For a related post, check out On Removing Weakifiers.)

Style Enemy Number 1:  Passive Voice – the Wordiest of Bad Writing Habits.  Passive voice is the bane of English teachers everywhere.  Once a writer has gone on autopilot, passive voice tends to pervade writing.  I frequently see it, for example, in first-year undergraduate English composition courses.  (Even Stephen King, who spent several years teaching English, includes a sustained anti-passive voice rant in   On Writing.)  If you take away only one thing from this post, let it be an understanding of what passive voice is and how to remove it from your writing. 

Take a look at this sentence:

        The boy hit the ball.

The subject of the sentence (“the boy”) is doing something here.  He is hitting.  When the sentence’s subject is the doer of the verb’s action, as it is here, the sentence is written in active voice

Compare that active sentence to this one, which describes the same thing:

        The ball was hit by the boy.

Here, the subject (“the ball”) is not doing anything.  Quite the opposite: it is having something done to it.  It is being hit.  This construction, in which the sentence’s subject is being acted upon rather than acting, is called passive voice

At best, passive voice deadens writing.  Instead of a vibrant sentence that expresses action, passive voice depicts subjects just sitting there, taking no action.  What’s worse, it takes more words to say something in passive voice. 

When readers approach each sentence, they seek to understand the sentence’s central action: who did what to whom, and so on.  In order to understand a passive sentence, (and here I am referring specifically to English and other languages that employ subject-verb-object as the standard word order) readers mentally rearrange the sentence to conform to that standard word order.  This rearrangement happens quickly and without conscious thought, but this extra step definitely contributes to a reader’s sense that “this writing doesn’t flow.”  A considerate writer saves the reader the extra step and makes the sentence active from the beginning.

It’s a simple enough task to rearrange “The ball was hit by the boy” to active voice.  In this case, passive voice is not desirable because a) it uses more words than needed and b) it makes the reader work harder to understand the writer’s meaning.

It’s bad enough that passive voice flattens and deadens prose.  But passive voice is even more dangerous because it frequently obscures meaning.  Many instances of passive voice hide the actor all together. 

Take this passive sentence, a twist on the first example:

        The boy was hit.

Your first question after reading this is probably: who or what hit him?  This sentence is grammatically correct, and yet it doesn’t tell us.  This sentence doesn’t tell us what may in many contexts be the most important piece of information about this action. 

This sentence – like another famous passive sentence “Mistakes were made” – avoids accountability as well as clarity.  By using passive voice, we don’t have to face the tough questions: who is responsible, how did it happen…

Most passive voice is not caused by a writer’s desire to abdicate responsibility or cover tracks.  Rather, passive voice is the result of fuzzy thinking.  As I argue in a previous post, junk in a draft represents a decision we as writers haven’t made.  It’s very easy to say “It is thought that X.”  If we put it that way, we don’t have to nail down where we got this idea. 

Not only is passive voice wordy in itself, it serves as a gateway to all sorts of other wordy and vague stylistic nightmares.  Next time you review a draft, look at each sentence and identify the sentence’s central action.  In the examples I have used here, the central action is hitting.  Next, ask yourself “who or what is doing this action?”  In my example, “who is hitting whom?” 

Once you have that answer, make the actor the sentence’s subject.  That’s it.  Following this procedure for each sentence you write is the single most important thing you can do to reduce wordiness and improve flow within a sentence.


Style Enemy Number 2:  Vague Expressions.  Although these can often be wordy as well, the main stylistic problem of a vague expression is inexactness.  When a phrase is vague, the writer isn’t clearly indicating what he or she means.  Readers, then, have a much higher chance of “missing the point” because they understand the expression differently than the writer intended it. 

To seek and destroy vagueness, ask yourself:  Can I be more concrete here?  Your draft may contain the sentence: “Jennifer’s words had an effect on me.”  Perfectly correct, and not too long.  However, this sentence is vague.  The phrase “had an effect” could mean dozens of different things.

Throughout this series, I have argued that the root of many flow problems in writing comes from a writer’s tendency to write for himself or herself rather than for the reader.  By keeping the reader in mind, we can include the transitions, details, and phrasing that will promote the reader’s understanding and earn the reader’s goodwill.  The reader owes us nothing; we, on the other hand, owe the reader much.  Without the reader, our writing might as well stay in a drawer.

So, what sort of effect did Jennifer’s words have?  “Jennifer’s words inspired me.”  “Jennifer’s words shocked me.”  “Jennifer’s words shamed me.”  Be exact, be concrete.   It’s the best way to thank your reader for giving your writing a chance to come alive.

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7 Responses to Seek And Destroy Your Writing Style Enemies

  1. Arman says:

    Nice! You nailed it down.

  2. loren says:

    Thanks, Arman! I think it’s important to break these large concepts (like flow) down into manageable chunks.


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  4. erdtek says:

    Hi Loren,

    I like the second idea and I want to comment on the first idea. You don’t say that we should always avoid passive mode, but I got almost that feeling.

    When I read the sentence “The boy hit the ball” my point of view was almost at the same place, looking at the boy hitting the boy.

    When I read the sentence “The ball was hit by the boy” I imagined the action from a different perspective, the perspective of the ball and not of the boy, it went through my mind like this: the ball is moving towards the boy, then it is hit by the boy and it goes in the opposite direction. And here my point of view is following the ball.

    Of course this is just a small example, out of context, but I think that passive voice also has its strengths and we can use it with success.

  5. loren says:

    Hi, Erdtek — thanks for the comment. As you point out, it’s important to remember that the passive voice/active voice issue is a matter of style, not grammar. Both are grammatically correct. And you’re right that passive voice has legitimate applications in some writing.

    But I recommend — as does every writing style guide I have come across — choosing active voice unless you have a compelling reason to choose passive voice, for all of the reasons I outlined above.

    If it is important to the narrative for the reader to focus on the ball’s journey rather than the boy’s action, then that sentence could be appropriate.

    But many writers use passive voice without thinking about its stylistic impact, and that is the real problem. Making conscious choices about style is key, whether those choices lead you to active or passive voice.


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