Some Writing 101: April Is Soaring NOT. April SOARS!

Some Writing 101: April Is Soaring NOT. April SOARS!

Facebook allows members to tell friends their latest news through “status” messages, and until recently a status message always began with:

[Your name] is

Exhibit A:
April is checking her e-mail.
April is updating her status message.
April is teaching herself to knit and rediscovering what it is to feel retarded.
April is wishing she didn’t have to work with the word “is” so much.
April is the fourth month of the year.
April is not. Is too. Is not! IS TOO!
April is or is not. You decide.

It bothered me from the beginning and still bothers me. Hell, it stifles me! I once read an article in Writer’s Digest about writing sentences that soared. Soared! This meant transforming passive writing into writing that moved you, and this Your Name Is crap moved me not a single inch. Not one!

Passive writing. Ha!

Most writers and editors understand this term, but most other people probably picture a mousy wallflower of a writer sitting in the quiet shadows with her journal … some submissive little freak willing to watch life pass her by and singing an old ’80s tune:

Some of them want to use you.
Some of them want to be used by you.
Some of them want to abuse you.
Some of them want to be abused.

Lyric lines 2 and 4? Our passive writer fits them to a tee.

The passive writer probably thinks her lines flow better and have a certain lyrical rhythm to them. Why? Because she has a voracious appetite for words, a vast vocabulary fit to fill an empty tome. How could anyone find fault in her writing when she uses so many multi-syllabic thousand-dollar words. Surely, the angels and sesquipedalians above weep upon reading her work.

For all the wrong reasons, no doubt.

Because the passive writer fails to realize that her writing—chock full of those beautiful-sounding words, grammatically correct as they are—just lies there like a fish … like a fair lady with soft limbs, lying in bed, keeping still and quiet as she waits for her lord to finish his husbandly duties. Oh, so pretty to behold, so boring as hell in bed.

So let’s get the definition out of the way and start on the same level.

We all know the word passive, I assume. A passive person can run the gamut between being merely observant or being everyone’s too-happy welcome mat. Passive writing, on the other hand, is boring, can be boring, has the characteristics of being boring, and has been proven to bore people.

That entire last sentence proves itself. Passive writing BORES!

Now, according to that age-old Writer’s Digest article I mentioned, one of the telltale signs of passive writing is the overuse of words like is, was, can, get, et cetera. Sometimes a writer just uses too many verbs when only one will do, and those extra verbs tend to be “helping” words. For instance:

She is going to tell me.

Dude. We have three verbs in that one sentence. To be. To go. To tell. What the hell? Why not just write:

She will tell me.

One verb in its future tense. Wham! Less passive.

Other times, a writer makes what should be the object noun the subject noun instead and turns perfectly serviceable verbs into adjectives. For instance:

I was bewildered by the bird. I was enthralled by its song. I was touched by its sadness.

Ooh, so pretty. So lyrical. So passive it surpasses the level of welcome mat and tiptoes into mud scraper territory. That fair lady on the bed not only lies in bed motionless; her husband unknowingly commits necrophilia.

Why not take all those same ideas and write:

The bird bewildered me. Its song enthralled me. Its sadness touched me.

To bewilder. To enthrall. To touch. You should put such great verbs to work instead of pimping them out as pretty, impractical adjectives, no? Of course, I’d probably further edit that to read:

The bewildering bird enthralled me with its sad and touching song.

Just one verb (to enthrall!) doing all the work and yet carrying all those pretty concepts on its lone but healthy shoulders, for one very effective sentence, like having one beautiful, smart, and charming woman in front of you, instead of three women—one beautiful, one smart, one charming; and you can marry only one!

But that goes beyond simply making a sentence less passive; that’s my obsessive-compulsive inner editor screaming, “Shorten! Rewrite! Make even better!” Just ignore her for now. At her worst, she keeps people from writing at all.

The point is, if you can find a way to make a sentence move, jump up, or dance, do it. Don’t let it lie there like a pale dead lady waiting to be poked. Be the lord and poke it! Make it sigh. Make it moan. Make it scream. Don’t let it sit there all pretty and useless.

Granted, there will be times you want a little passive writing. I mean, can you imagine if Eurythmics rewrote their pretty song?

Some of them want to use you.
Some of them want you to use them.
Some of them want to abuse you.
Some of them want you to abuse them.

Not quite as catchy, is it?

So yeah, you won’t want to bring every passive dead lady to life. Sometimes you need a dead body or two to emphasize the life and vigor of the other occupants in the room. Perhaps it makes for a more poetic scene or something. I don’t know. It’s really all up to you.

But in the meantime, my Facebook status messages will soar unstifled by that dreaded is, is, is.

Exhibit B:
April checks her e-mail.
April updates her status message.
April teaches herself to knit and rediscovers what it is to feel retarded.
April wishes the word “is” never comes back on Facebook.
April by any other name is still Gertrude.
April showers. Bring me flowers.
April reigns.

And so, the girl with the journal abandoned her wall and soared.

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5 thoughts on “Some Writing 101: April Is Soaring NOT. April SOARS!

  1. Great excursion into style, as always. I wish my 10th graders were clever enough to read that in the English original. And since I have lurked so far this year: healthy new year!

  2. I have a high threshold for passives. If I actually notice passive voice, I reckon that’s too much. I generally find that if the story is weak, too many passive sentences highlights the flaws. Also, I liked the (bad) example with the bewildering birds. Some of my favourite authors write like that, but it works because it goes with their style and tone. And, of course, they don’t overuse it.

    I love this post on passives (I admit, mostly because of the creative ways Pullum lambastes Strunk & White).

  3. I’m the same way. It only bothers me when I notice the passive voice. And I do understand that it sort of removes responsibility — I mean, it’s perfect for term papers. I wrote nearly all of my high school and college essays in the passive voice.

    But, oy. I’d been seeing too much of it when I wrote this post, so of course, I had to say something, lol.

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