Archive: December 19th, 2007

Strength

j0337261.jpgWriting manuals talk about the importance of “strong” writing. You know, the need to avoid wishy-washy, vague, round-about sentences, but how, exactly, are you supposed to do that? And why?

The “how” is pretty straight-forward.

Use active verbs. An active verb is one that, well, describes an action. Run. Write. Vote. Drive. Weep. This is opposed to a passive verb, where the action is acted upon the subject.

You’re better off showing strength, hunger, originality, intelligence, silliness, brilliance and so on by actions, like, “Even with the waves crashing around her, her grip on the rope held firm,” This, opposed to telling, as in, “She was frightened by the waves, but the rope never left her hands.”

Do you hear the difference? The first example shows her resolve not to let go of the rope despite the waves. The fear is only implied, but can be imagined because of the crashing waves. In the second example, the sentence tells you that she’s frightened, and more than that, by saying the “rope never left,” it almost sounds as if it was the rope’s choice that she didn’t let go. It’s the same scene, but altogether, the second is a much weaker sentence.

Use adverbs as little as possible. Two reasons. One, they dilute the strength of strong verbs. “He quickly ran” is redundant because how else would he be running? If he was running flat out at full speed, maybe the verb “he sped” would be a better choice. Because, two, while an adverb+weak verb is an okay combination, it’s not as powerful as a strong verb on its own. Fled instead of ran. Spring, Lunge, or Leap instead of jump. You get the idea.

Using the verb, “to be” is passive. “He is walking” is less strong than, “He walks,” because, again, it’s a passive construction. It circles around the gist of the sentence instead of stating it outright.

Which brings us to the “Why.”

Have you ever had one of those circular conversations? “What do you want to do tonight?” “I don’t know, what do you want?” “Whatever makes you happy.” “Well, I just want you to be happy.” Nobody quite says that they want to stay home, or would like to go to the movies, or just go to bed–it’s just a lot of wasted words and wasted effort, when it would have been so much simpler just to say, “I want to sit on the couch and veg in front of the television tonight.”

Using passive verbs in a sentence is just like having a passive, “I dunno” conversation–it’s indirect and doesn’t get the job done in as efficient or elegant a fashion as just saying it would. One believes that it is in one’s best interest to be direct when one speaks. (Ahem.) In other words, say what you mean, say it clearly, and say it with as few unnecessary words as possible. Am I telling you to mimic Ernest Hemingway’s sparse style? No. Am I telling you never to use an adverb again? Of course not. They’re valuable tools.

What I am telling you is that when your fundamental writing is strong, it can support whatever you choose to build, but if your foundation is weak, your prose is going to collapse under its own dead weight.