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The Writer’s Boot Camp Passive V Active Construction Concrete & Abstract The Power of Small Words
Active V Passive Voice In the active voice, the subject performs the action. The student [actor] threw [action verb] the book [object]. Active voice may use auxiliary verb: is, are, was, were, being, been, am The student [actor] is destroying the book [object]. Passive voice, the subject receives the action: The book [object] was thrown by the student [actor]. Use of passive voice sometimes withholds important information. The book [object] was destroyed [no actor]. In this case, vital information is withheld.
Why Use Active Voice? Active voice is more direct and dynamic than passive. Passive tends to be weaker, longer and wordier than the active voice. Compare: The young girl was taunted ruthlessly by the bullies. She was found in her room that night, by her mother, crying herself to sleep. The bullies taunted the young girl ruthlessly. Her mother found her in her room that night, crying herself to sleep.
When to Use Passive Construction To emphasize the subject or the receiver of the action: The child [object] was killed by the fall [actor]. Emphasis on the child’s death, not on the fall. Long, complicated instructions [object] are often ignored by students [actor]. Emphasizes the fact that complicated instructions are often ignored. Versus: Students often ignore long, complicated instructions. Prefer this active construction in a sentence about students. To take the emphasis off the performer of the action: Campus security was overhauled to provide greater protection to students. Who did the overhauling is not important. When the actor is unknown: A baby boy was left in a basket outside the hospital.
Passive Construction Continued To avoid responsibility—e. g. , to avoid calling unwanted attention to the performer of a negative action: The bride’s mother was not told about the shower. A 25 percent tax hike was proposed. Versus: The bridesmaids forgot to tell the bride’s mother about the shower. Senator Jones proposed a 25 percent tax increase. To maintain consistency: The package was delivered to the wrong house. The mailman left it on the doorstep. Versus: The package was delivered to the wrong house. It was left on the doorstep.
Exercise In a passage you’ve written: 1) Find an example of passive voice; make it active. 2) Find an example of active voice; make it passive. 3) Notice and explain the differences. 1) Write a strong, telling sentence using passive construction. Jot down your reasons. 2) Working from the same idea, rewrite the sentence using active construction. Note the differences.
Rely on Vivid Nouns and Verbs Adjectives and adverbs, used as auxiliary words, make your writing feel sloppy and fat. The baby cried loudly. The vicious dog scared the little girl. Rely instead on vivid, colorful nouns and verbs. The baby howled. The Rottweiler growled at the girl, baring his teeth, backing her into a corner.
Exercise ONE 1) Find a vague or boring verb; revise with interesting one. 2) Revise a boring sentence, using strong nouns and verbs. TWO Read one page of a current draft or recently finished work. 1) Cross out all adjectives and adverbs. Reread the passage. 2) Rewrite the page, using only nouns and verbs. Keep the language strong, vivid and precise.
Concrete V Abstract words exist in your mind and include ideas, conditions, and emotions: beauty, freedom, love, hate, fear. Because they tend to be vague, people disagree on meaning: What is pretty? Nice? Wonderful? Free? The young woman had pretty hair. V The young woman’s lustrous blond hair cascaded over her shoulders. We were affected by the news. V After the news, we sighed in relief. BUT Abstract words convey ideas. Writing that relies primarily on the abstract is unconvincing.
Concrete Versus Abstract Concrete words refer to things we see, hear, smell, taste, touch: tree, bell, smoke, hamburger, book. Concrete writing paints a picture, 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, legs spread, one arm flung over the mattress. She’d been dreaming, her hair damp. . . BUT Overly concrete writing, devoid of emotion or ideas, can be boring. Meaning can also be open to misinterpretation.
General V Specific Both general and specific words are concrete & sensory. Choose based on context and by degree: bug versus spider; spider versus tarantula or scorpion. General moving to greater degrees of specificity: Living Quarters—House—Updated colonial home——Three-bedroom contemporary-Cape—Red, three-bedroom, two-bath contemporary. Cape Generalizations put specific points in context: Legal Sea Food serves fresh lobster. They ship all their shellfish directly from Maine.
Exercise Read two paragraphs of a current draft. FIRST 1) Underline all abstract words. 2) Underline all general (concrete) words. 3) Notice the balance (or lack thereof). THEN 1) For each general word, come up with 2 -3 specific words. 4) Revise 2 or 3 sentences, using the specific words your list.
Show, Don’t Tell We’ve all heard the saying, “show don’t tell. ” This advice helps us to think in pictures. And it’s terrific advice. Compare: She was too angry to speak. She didn’t know what to say. She slammed the book on the table, and pretended to read. Remember to use all five senses—not just visuals. In most humans, one sensory perception dominates. For writers, it’s often visual. For that reason, visual imagery feels natural. Branch out. Use all five senses. Consider the unexpected. The hospital food was terrible. VERSUS The hospital breakfast looked like lumpy gray mush, smelled like dirty socks, and tasted dish soap. (OK, that’s over the top. Still, consider the point. )
Show & Tell: Find the Golden Mean Show, Don’t Tell—But not always! True, showing is powerful and puts the reader into the story, but telling is important too. Telling gives the work meaning and perspective. Consider: She stood, immobilized, staring blindly at the empty room, the naked windows, the scarred oak floor, the bare closets. She had no idea where he had gone—or what to make of his leaving. The best writing strikes a balance between showing and telling. As Aristotle might say: “Find the golden mean. ”
Exercise Describe the star high school athlete (your choice) after his or her team has lost the big game. PART 1: 1) Tell us how he or she feels. Using mostly abstract words, describe his or her thoughts and feelings. 2) Rewrite your description, using vivid, concrete language. Show the athlete leaving the field. Use sensory detail to show he or she feels. Be specific. 3) Note the differences. PART 2: Describe the same young athlete. This time, show and tell.
The Case for Short Words: Testamonials Short words are best, and the old words when short are best of all. ” —Winston Churchill Good writers are those who keep the language efficient. That is to say, keep it accurate, keep it clear. ” —Ezra Pound Strunk & White: Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. ” (Avoid over-use of stylized language. Use stylistic language only when you want to attract or enhance audience attention. ) Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. " -
Short Words—Orwell Speaks “Short words derived from the Anglo-Saxon tongue are livelier than longer words from the Latin. Gut is a lustier noun than intestine, but the two words are not interchangeable, because gut is often inappropriate, being too coarse for the context. ” The choices are not always easy; they are a matter of ear, context, and style. If it doesn't sound right, rewrite. “In 1940 British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote to United States President Franklin Roosevelt, requesting war material to stave off defeat at the hands of Nazi Germany. These were his words: "Give us the tools, and we will finish the job. " He did not say, "Deliver to us the implements, and we will complete the assignment. ”
Strunk & White: Prefer Short Words Short words: Are more direct Are heart words—we know, feel, and understand them Make the work easier to read Move the reader along more effectively than long words May be more forceful than longer words A one-syllable word is easier to read than a three-syllable word: Use versus utilize A one-syllable word is easier to read than a two-syllable word: Buy versus purchase Two one-syllable words are easier to read than one twosyllable word: Ask for versus request
Example Genesis 1: 9 And God said, "Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear. " And it was so. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. 11 And God said, "Let the earth put forth vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, upon the earth. " And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, a third day.
Exercise Write a 2 -3 paragraph story using all single-syllable words. Use vivid, precise language. Make your story sing! Revise one page of a story or novel draft. Use ONLY single- syllable words. Because you’ve got an idea in mind for the piece, this exercise will probably be harder. Push yourself.
Rules to Write: a Primer Prefer the active voice Cut unnecessary modifiers; rely on strong nouns and verbs Use vivid action words—and be sure they’re the right words. Walk—amble, stroll, stride, pace, hike, stagger Drink—sip, gulp, slurp, swig, lap up Dance—boogie, tap, salsa, tango, waltz Talk—chat, speak, gossip, chatter, whisper Prefer specific, concrete words to vague, general ones. Concrete words paint pictures in the reader’s mind. Avoid vague (abstract) words like thing, situation, impact, nice.
Rules to Write: a Primer Continued Never use a twenty-five center when a penny word will do. Toss the clichés. If you’ve heard it, your readers have too. Avoid jargon, except when expected (e. g. in industry papers) Write honestly and directly. Avoid euphemism and other squirrely words. Avoid racism, sexism and all the other isms. Careful with humor—on paper or screen, jokes don’t always come across as intended. Be yourself. Write from your heart—sound like the smart, sensitive, beautiful person you are!