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Nexcess Blog

Writing Gooder, Part 2

November 19, 2015 2 Comments RSS Feed

Recently, I unleashed my inner English teacher upon this unsuspecting blog, only to tease (or perhaps relieve) the audience with one rule. With apologies to Conrad Vachon, the hero of my introduction from Part 1, let’s jump right into two more ways to flex your writing muscle.

#2 Passive voice should be exterminated Exterminate passive voice

This ties in with the first rule, “Omit needless words,” but it’s important enough to stand on its own. At best, the passive voice is awkward and long-winded. At worst, it’s a lazy, swollen abomination feeding on the flesh of your writing.

For example: “The car was driven into the wall by me.”

Versus: “I drove the car into the wall.”

Unless there’s a need to emphasize “The car,” the first version wastes the reader’s time and obscures the sentence’s meaning. The simplest way to explain passive voice without sending you into a coma is as follows:

Passive voice places the cause of the action at the end of the sentence, convoluting its meaning: “The tree was struck by lightning.” “Humility was forgotten by the technical writer.”

Active voice places the cause of the action at the beginning of the sentence with clear and compelling language: “Lightning struck the tree.” “The technical writer forgot humility.”

In technical documentation, passive voice confuses and annoys the audience, which most would argue defeats the point of technical documentation:

For example:
“Follow the procedure unless blue wires should be cut, in which case Step 6 should be followed by the bomb defuser.”

Huh? What? It’s like the sentence reads in reverse, and your poor reader will need to read it at least twice before gouging out his eyes and fleeing into oncoming freeway traffic.

Why not:
“If you see blue wires, proceed to Step 6. Otherwise follow procedure.”

Or, to put it in pictures:

Passive Voice

(“Yawning Hippo” by Jon Connell, some rights reserved)
Passive voice:
Bloated, yawning bog-beast

Active Voice

(”Running of the Horses” by Chauncey Davis, some rights reserved)
Active voice:
Majestic, muscular wind-dancer

Do exceptions exist? Absolutely. But it’s on-by-default in far too much writing, for no reason other than it’s natural and easy, and the reader often has to take up the slack.

#3 There is no better way to bore your readers than to say “there is”

Vachon, my English teacher, blacklisted this phrase from our high school writing. At first, I resisted this tyranny against my naturalistic writing, but I soon realized Vachon was just trying to potty-train us. We were, in polite terms, “making a mess” on our papers with these stink-bombs, smothering opportunities for strong imagery and evocative language.

For fun — or at least my idea of fun — consider two versions of the same paragraph.

(First attempt, nice-’n’-easy, loads of helping verbs:)
There is no good reason to watch Armageddon. It is a tragic mix of clichés, cartoon characters, ridiculous action sequences, and a plot that is like a first grader’s coloring book. The film is like light beer: no flavor, no substance, and it shamelessly panders to the lowest common denominator to make a buck.

(Rewritten with more action verbs, took more effort:)
Sometimes, when I feel like punishing myself but can’t find a bottle of Crisco to chug, I watch Armageddon. This tragic mix of cartoon characters, dumb action, and a plot ripped from a coloring book usually makes me pray for death. Yet death eludes me, leaving me with only the foul aftertaste of the film’s light-beer, lowest-common-denominator premise.

The original version was easy to write. It flowed right out of my brain like something that I don’t ever want flowing out of me. And it deserved to be flushed like it, too.

Words are not people. People deserve help when they need it, but words should stand on their own merit. If it can’t, consider killing it with fire. Here’s a list of other words to burn. The list even resembles a torch, which is completely, unequivocally, and certifiably one hundred percent almost intentional.

very
be
have, has, had
do, does, did
could
may
very
might
would
should
is/are
quite
very

No, you didn’t find a typo. “Very” almost always flags the author as a lazy amateur. Stay away, stay very, very, very, very far away.

Hidden from sight

For now, I must crawl back into the cold comfort of my grammar cave, but I will emerge again soon enough. When that happens, there is a very good article that will be read by you.

Oh, you didn’t like that last sentence? Good. Just checkin’.


Bathe in the soothing waters of Writing Gooder, Part 3.


Posted in: Nexcess
  • Agreed. The Hemingway App can be a really useful tool to flag some bad habits that writers might not know they’re making.

  • Jason T. Dobry

    Thank you for pointing out the Hemingway App! I actually considered adding it, but had mixed feelings about suggesting an app to “do the thinking for you.” It is, however, a wonderful tool, even if it reminds me of Agent Smith and his “once we started thinking for you, it really became our civilization” comment in The Matrix.

    Thanks for reading!