How We Talk About Writing Matters

Nothing—and I mean nothing—flips my switch like people posting misinformation, bad advice, and intellectual fallacies under the hashtag #writetip.

If you follow me, you probably already get that I am not fond of rules. When it comes to writing, I’m a stickler for grammar and beautiful use of language, but when it comes to style, I can enjoy a lot as long as you pay attention to the first two. And that’s why most lists of “Rules of Writing” drive me nuts. They address—or hope to address—issues of style, not technique. And they seem to promote the idea that there’s some secret formula, some Über-style that will make agents and editors alike gasp in admiration and admit the writer to the hallowed halls of publication.

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Another thing that puts my knickers in a twist is people parroting back these lists of rules who demonstrate no comprehension of what they actually mean or where they might have come from. When I see lists making sweeping generalizations about what you should and should not include in your manuscript, my immediate reaction is to ask, “Who made you the authority?” Because I notice these tweets seldom come from successful authors I respect, or for that matter have even heard of.

 Yesterday this popped up in my Twitter feed:

annoying tweet list

Of course, it got me going right from the start. I take exception to anyone telling me point blank what to delete from my manuscript. Some of those words and expressions may be overused by some writers. But there is no word or expression that is by nature “wrong,” or “bad” or “unnecessary.”

 Usually I ignore this stuff, because it just raises my blood pressure. Yesterday, I chose to address the person posting. I asked, “So, you don’t see any distinction between an action that is ongoing and one that has just begun?”

 Her response: “Well, sure, in the right context. But as a general rule it’s passive voice.”

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After I retrieved my jaw from my lap, I gently informed the poster that none of those items constituted passive voice and explained what passive voice actually means.  Her response: “I was speaking voice, not grammar. It’s static passive voice, but still, a majority of times, it needs to go.” I told her passive voice is a grammatical concern, not a stylistic one. Her response: “I think most people knew what I meant though. While technically, you’re correct, most people use the other term.”

Here I refrained from screaming, “THEN MOST PEOPLE ARE WRONG!!!”

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Later this happened:

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Do you see what’s going on here? I mean, aside from the backpedaling and justification. Really, people, how hard is it to admit you made a mistake and correct yourself? If you’re fighting about this, how do you take critique of your work? How are you ever going to cope with that hoped-for editor???

But that’s not my point. My point is the original poster did not have the language to talk about writing, and instead of acquiring it fell back on “I like to think most people know what I mean.”

What kind of attitude is that for a person who claims the use of words and language as her BUSINESS?

We are writers. Words are our medium. How we talk about what we do MAKES A DIFFERENCE. We need to pay attention, not only to the language in our stories, but the Meta-Language of writing, i.e., the words and terms we use to talk about what we do. There is absolutely no point in sharing rules about how to write if you don’t have any clarity of terms. These terms not only give us a common ground to discuss what we do, but also create an intelligible platform for sharing our work and ideas about our work with others. Without a common meta-language, we cannot even know what we value and what we don’t. We cannot talk about style versus technique. And we certainly cannot expect anyone to intuit what we mean. I don’t care if you felt limited by Twitter’s 140 character restriction. If you can’t express yourself clearly, you have no business trying to tell others how to express themselves.

You know, I get that language changes. Things are acceptable in writing now that were not acceptable when I was a kid in middle school. You can split infinitives. You can use “alright” instead of “all right,” something I was taught is never correct. You can say “Everyone has their hat” instead of “everyone has his hat.” Lots of these things still drive me batshit and I avoid them like the plague, but that’s just me. As I said earlier, I’m a stickler for grammar and technique. And the waters get muddy where technique and style collide.

But the evolution of language in popular culture is not the point here. Yes, colloquialisms may change, but the professional language of writers talking about writing does not. When I talk with a professor or an editor about “passive voice” it means the grammatical construct whereby the subject of the sentence receives the action. It is distinct and separate from a static stylistic choice and we all know that because the meta-language is consistent.

Our words are our tools. A builder might own both a brick hammer and a framing hammer, but he wouldn’t use the brick hammer to frame a house. We have lots of words in our toolbag, and we need to use the words that say what we mean. If you don’t know them, learn them. Refusing to do so makes all writers look bad.

And if you don’t care about that, think about this: it makes you look like a moron.

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The Passive Voice: A Brief Tutorial

A few years ago, I participated in an on-line writing group. I’m not generally a joiner, but I thought I’d give it a go. And I did get some advice from various members that helped me hone my writing, so that’s a good thing.

Anyway, the first time I submitted a chapter to the group, one of the other members sent it back with all instances of the word “was” highlighted. She told me, “You should eliminate the passive from your work.” I started looking at what she had marked, and I noticed that I did, indeed, use the word “was” a lot, and that it seemed to slow down the flow of the narrative. I also noticed that very few instances of that word represented true usage of the passive voice.

 Five years later, I still mark instances of “was” (along with “that” and “just” and “really”) in my first drafts. And they’re still very rarely the passive voice. But the antipathy toward passive voice lives on. I’ve seen a number of internet discussions on it. The thing is, very few people seem to know what the passive voice is. I think this may be because “the rules” cause them to avoid it, and you can’t understand something you’re avoiding. Unfortunately, if you don’t understand something, you can’t properly avoid it, either. So here is my brief tutorial on the Passive Voice.

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Passive Voice means the subject of your sentence receives the action. It puts the agency outside your character (or whatever you happen to be talking about). Recently one acquaintance remarked that she uses Bart Simpson saying “mistakes were made” as an example, because it shows him not claiming responsibility. Well, that is the Passive Voice, but ownership or lack of it isn’t the reason. The reason it’s passive is that the subject of the sentence (mistakes) had something done to them (were made). Bart could have owned the action by saying “Mistakes were made by me,” and the construction would still be passive.

 The mere existence of the simple past tense of the verb “to be” is not necessarily indicative of the Passive Voice. You need to take the agency away as well. It’s true, you may want to look at an overabundance of that particular verb form, because “was” is static. It’s experiential, and while a character’s experiences are an important part of writing, they don’t always move the story. Replacing them can lead to more picturesque writing. Compare, “the tree was in the meadow” with “the tree towered over the grasses and wildflowers in the meadow.” With the second, you’ve placed the tree in the same place, but you’ve made it do something other than just stand there. You’ve also given yourself the opportunity to paint a better picture of the setting (adding the grasses and the wildflowers in contrast to the tree).

 Here’s where some confusion comes in. In that example, the second sentence is indeed more “active.” However, it was never “passive” in terms of voice. Nothing happened to the tree. If I had said, “the tree was struck by lightning,” then the tree would have received the action, and the construction would be passive.

 I like to make a distinction between “passive” and “static.” Lots of things are static that are not passive. Descriptive language like similes and metaphors is most often static. “The moon was like a big cheese on the horizon,” or “The cat was a monster.” Sometimes you can eliminate the static language and sometimes you can’t. It’s up to you whether you want to.

Personally, I don’t have it in for the Passive Voice. There are times you might want to use it. If your protagonist gets swept away by a flood, she might very well be feeling a lack of agency which you want to promote. Or, you could turn it around and say, “The flood swept her away.” It just depends on what you want to convey. Just remember, if your characters continually lack agency, they might not be very interesting.

 The End.