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Make Your Sentences Powerful- Misunderstood Writing Advice

The most important thing you can do to improve your writing is to avoid the passive voice. For most of us, this means writing without using variations of the verb to be. An example is the following.

There were a great number of dead leaves on the ground.

v.s.

Dead leaves covered the ground.

(Strunk & White)

While the active voice seems colorful and more variable- it negatively affects the reader’s ear in most cases. More often than not, use of the passive voice requires more time to read, more time to comprehend, and feels pompous to the reader. These negative effects are just the kind of thing that causes a reader to put down your book. If you still don’t believe me, try the following:

Take out a notebook and write a paragraph with the prompt below in the passive voice. Make sure every verb is in its to be form (e.g. It was generally agreed that Joey was hit by Paul with the ball). Once you have finished that paragraph take every sentence you wrote and turn it into the active voice (e.g. Among the group, most agreed that Paul hit Joey with the ball). Compare the two. Is there a difference? Is one longer than the other? Which sounds better to you? Tell me what you think in the comments.

Prompt: Bethany tries extreme bungee jumping for the first time.

This does not mean you should never use the passive voice (some particularly bad advice) because it is sometimes necessary to make the object of an action the subject of a sentence. It is the specific word that you choose as the subject that determines the voice (Strunk & White).

What the active voice does is force the writing to be clear, concise, and lively. The stronger the sentence, you may find, the shorter it is. This is the basic tenet of Show Don’t Tell. Often, I see writers misunderstand this basic rule to mean that flowery language is necessary to create vivid imagery- but any close examination of the more famous authors will turn up imagery entirely in the active voice that is so descriptive because it is clear. Cut the flowers, put them in a vase, and see what they can do. They wilt every time.

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9 Comments

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Whoa. Now I am going to be a little scared to write for fear of breaking the mighty rules!!! I am really, really bad at using passive voice. And I’m kind of prone to weedy adverbs too. That’s one thing about Japanese – sentence structure is very prescribed (from what I remember). Subject, time, place, object, verb.
Thank you for writing this article, I think that considering these things will improve my writing.

Write in spite of the rules! It’s good for ya. Poetry is about making the rules work for you anyway. So go get ’em!
Yeah Japanese can be that way- I remember having trouble writing sentences because they would be too direct, and in my efforts to correct this, not direct enough!

Thank you as always for reading- I’m glad to be of any help!

This memorable, insightful and quite authoritative article was very much appreciated, like a long walk on a sunny and pleasant autumn afternoon.

Translation: Good. Me like.

Hahaha

I’m glad you liked it and said so in such poetic terms! I hope I can keep making content that lives up to this level of expectation for readers like you!

I live by the rule that adverbs are generally redundant or useless if you use the correct verb. I like the rule of using metaphors instead of similes. It drives the action. I might add a rule: In general, if you use more than one preposition consecutively, one of them is redundant and not needed, e.g. “Went out on a limb,” “He came from up under the box,” “He ran out of the room”. These could be said simpler, e.g. “He ran from the room.”

Absolutely right! I would say that a writer needs to think about these things before putting the pen to paper- sometimes those metaphors aren’t the best, other times they make it worth reading.

It’s subjective, but always something to consider.
Thanks for the thoughtful comment and for reading! Keep writing, my friend.

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