Thursday, January 24th, 2008

Weakness is Strength (Sometimes)

We’ve talked about the importance of strong, active writing, but what about those times when a passive voice is actually a better choice?

No, seriously. King Arthur had the right idea. Might isn’t always right.

Taking the strong, firm, direct approach to writing–using active verbs, avoiding the “extras” that weaken the sentence’s impact–is bruited about in all the best writing guides as ideal writing. But what about the times when you don’t want to be direct? When you don’t want your writing to sound like an Army Sergeant yelling at new recruits?

j0422388.jpgLike, say, when issuing an invitation. It takes a very special person to get away with an invitation that says, “8:00. Saturday night. My house. Be there.” Most of us stick to something a little softer like, “The pleasure of your company would be appreciated….” This is a classic, round-about kind of sentence that the “active writing” mavens despise, and yet . . . it’s diplomatic.

This goes for other requests, too. Whether it’s in an e-mail, a letter, or a blog post, it’s generally considered poor form to demand things of your readers. “Click Here!” gets the point across, but the context is important. If you’re saying something like, “Your life is in danger right now and you can only be saved if you Click Here!” . . . well, who wouldn’t click? Even, “Want to buy now? Click Here” is acceptible because it’s not so much an order as an opportunity. But if you’re just linking to a picture of your dog, or if you’re trying to convince someone to donate money or buy something . . . it probably wouldn’t hurt to be a little less . . . pushy. Make sure they know the option is there, but leave the decision to click up to them. No pressure.

In fact, if you’ve been paying attention, there were a couple of sentences in that last paragraph that took the scenic route instead of getting directly to the point. “It’s generally considered poor form,” is a lot less direct than “It is poor form.” And, “It probably wouldn’t hurt to be a little less pushy” is much more round-about than, “Don’t be pushy.” But, see? The “direct” alternatives are more . . . presumptuous, more demanding. They are direct commands that lack the finesse of suggestions.

Sometimes, though, that’s exactly what you need. Who wants to be told what to do all the time? Who wants the writer to do all the work for them? I mean, sure, that’s the writer’s job, but you have to leave something for the reader to do, a journey to take–and they have to choose to do it. If you’re trying to persuade, or trying to teach or explain, you can’t just say, “This is the way it is. Period.” You need to let the reader discover that for themselves.

Again, it comes down to diplomacy. Nations don’t usually tell other nations what to do–or when they do, they usually couch it in the form of Very Strong Suggestions. As soon as you start giving orders, people start digging in their heels and resisting. Negotiation is better than outright hostility. There’s a natural give-and-take involved. Well, the same goes between writers and readers. It seems like it’s one-sided because, of course, the writing is complete before it can be read, but still . . . if the readers choose not to read, what good does solid, direct, strong writing do?

Mind you, I am not taking back what I wrote last month about strong, direct writing. I’m just saying that, sometimes, being less direct is a good thing. A little diplomacy. A little tact. A little power-of-suggestion. It’s the Road Not Travelled of the writing world.

9 Comments on “Weakness is Strength (Sometimes)”


  1. I love how you describe passive writing as “the scenic route.” This is so true that some need caressing instead of being told what to do.

  2. --Deb

    Thanks–I kind of liked that, too, but then got worried about figuratively patting myself on the back over a neatly-turned phrase (grin).


  3. I just wanna know who the cute hunk is with the “call me” sticky. I’d call him. Oh, cripe, wait a minute…I’m old enough to be his mom. Sheesh.


  4. [...] almost touched on this the other day when I was talking about a kinder, gentler form of writing, and then realized that it was perfect for today’s Mangled [...]


  5. [...] Weakness is Strength (Sometimes) [...]


  6. Great points. I will bear these in mind for my own blog, as I sometimes worry that I come across as a bit bossy. thanks


  7. [...] January: Weakness is Strength (Sometimes) [...]


  8. [...] January: Weakness is Strength (Sometimes) [...]


  9. Great point, and not an easy one to follow when you come from a very direct family. I have a hard time not just coming to the point, it is something I need to work on.

    Vanessa’s last blog post..Grrrrr… skype!