I’m Lou Franco and this is episode 37 of Write While True.
Write While True is an infinite loop, and that’s because I think of writing as an infinite game. A game I play for fun and to get better at it. Like a game of catch.
So in each episode, I’ll tell you something I learned about writing, and then I’ll throw you the ball with a writing challenge or a prompt.
This is season three of this podcast, which has been about the basic building blocks of writing. I’m trying to explore the basics of writing by finding the equivalent to making marks on a paper when you’re learning to draw. I think that’s things like choosing words, forming sentences from those words, and paragraphs from those sentences.
Starting in episode 28, I suggested various exercises that help in writing complex sentences, avoiding loose sentences, finding descriptive nouns and verbs, and avoiding zombie nouns. I’ve talked about word order, sentence order, and paragraph order. This is the tenth episode of the series.
In these episodes, I’ve leaned heavily on the classic books on writing, particularly Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.
This is a book I think a lot of aspiring writers have read and are basically familiar with. And if not, it’s tiny and accessible and worth your time. If only because it’s part of the conversation on writing.
Today I want to talk about one of the rules that’s in Strunk and White. It’s actually in almost every book about writing, which is to use the active voice and to prefer it over the passive voice.
So let me give you an example from Strunk and White.
Here’s a sentence in the active voice:
I shall always remember my first visit to Boston.
And here it is in the passive voice.
My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.
The difference is which noun is doing the action of the verb. In the active voice, the subject is doing the action and in the passive voice, the action is being done by the object.
I think we’ve all heard this rule. It’s addressed in many books on writing.
What I want to talk about today is when you should use the passive voice.
Even in this section of the Strunk and White, in this rule, Strunk says, “this rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.”
And then he gives these two example sentences.
Here it is in the passive voice.
The dramatists of the restoration are little esteemed today.
And in the active voice,
Modern readers have little esteem for the dramatists of the restoration.
He makes the point that the sentence you should prefer depends on what your piece is about. If your piece is about the dramatists, then keeping the dramatists in the subject position is preferable.
If your piece is about modern readers, then using the active voice with modern readers in the subject position is preferable.
I know this is a rule in The Elements of Style, but I eventually forgot this caveat.
And what stayed with me was the title of the rule, “Use the active voice.”
The title wasn’t, “use the subject position for the most important noun in your sentence and then use either the active or passive voice, whichever one makes that possible.”
I went back to reread this rule because I saw two things in a row that argued against rules like this and they were very convincing.
The first is a lecture by Larry McEnerney. I’ll put a link in the show notes.
\I’ve linked to Larry McEnerney before, most notably in episode number five on audience and message.
He’s the one that said that the purpose of writing “was to help your readers understand better something they want to understand well.”
He’s a big influence in the structure of my, my work.
I often say, I try to write a single message to a single reader. Larry McEnerney is who I got it from.
In the video I’m link going to link you to, he is analyzing Lincoln’s Gettysburg address,
He’s analyzing it in many different ways. Mostly he’s talking about its cohesion, but he takes seven minutes in the middle of this hour to talk about Lincoln’s use of the passive voice and why he did use it when he did.
In that section, he goes on a diatribe against people who say you should never use the passive voice.
His main point is similar to Strunk’s. You want to control the subject of the sentence. The subject is what you use to focus the reader, and you want the reader to be focused on things they care about. It makes them motivated to read the rest of the sentence.
He gives some really great examples in the talk.
One of the things he says people keep telling him is isn’t this a matter of authority? I mean, who are you Larry McEnerney? George Orwell said not to do it in his essay, Politics and the English Language, and he points out that if you look at Orwell’s writing, not what he said, but what he did, you’ll find that 20% of the sentences in Politics in the English Language are in the passive voice.
And so it’s not a rule. There’s no rule that you have to use the active voice. A lot of people would have said that Strunk and White says not to use it. But as I read to you already, they specifically don’t say not to use it. And they do you it.
So I saw that video by Larry McEnerney this week, but I’m in the middle of reading The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker.
He’s a linguist and an expert on how language developed in humans from an evolutionary perspective. He’s most known for his book, The Language Instinct, which goes into language and evolution in depth.
The Sense of Style is a newer book and is about understanding why we think good writing is good.
And in chapter four, which is a very long chapter, but well worth your time, he proposes a way of thinking about parsing sentences. He shows that the relative ease or difficulty of parsing sentences this way is a clue to how comprehensible the sentence will be by readers.
I started this podcast mostly to talk to programmers (like me) who want to write. And this is one of those chapters that is going to seem really great to programmers. He talks about a way of breaking down sentences as a tree, and talks about how to develop that parsing tree, and specifically what the various nodes will be.
And then once you see those trees, and once you can make them from sentences, he talks
about what kinds of sentences make the trees span and branch to the right, and what
kinds of sentences make the tree span and branch to the left.
And he proposes that we understand sentences better when they branch and span towards the right, because we don’t need to have as much memory to process those sentences, meaning we’re not leaving things unknown in the sentence that are going to be resolved by words later.
One way to think of this is in Unix command lines, when we’re using piping, we do a command and a pipe and a command and a pipe. And as we’re typing it, we don’t really have to go back to the beginning to fill out commands that we’ve already written.
We can keep processing and processing the command as we go. The same is true in object-oriented languages like Java and C++ that use a dot notation with objects, so we write object dot member dot member dot member and so on, and you can keep processing the return values, but you’re done with the left side and you don’t have to go back.
If you compare that to SQL, as you develop your query and joins, you often have to go back to the beginning and put in new tables and columns you might need.
Programming editors are often more helpful with languages that put more context information up front and are able to complete lines more easily. It’s also true with humans.
For human comprehension, leaving things unresolved while you’re speaking makes it hard to continue paying attention to the rest of the sentence.
But just like programming languages, we have rules in English. You always have to put your subject before your verb and your verb before your object.
This makes it hard to add modifiers to your subject because you either need to put them before your subject, delaying the subject to later in the sentence. Or you need to put words between the subject and the verb and then you’re risking confusion.
If you need to add a lot of modifiers to your subject, one way to do that is to flip the sentence so that it’s an object that is closer to the end of the sentence. The most common way to do that is to use the passive voice.
Here’s an example from Pinker. This is from Oedipus Rex:
A man arrives from Corinth with the message that Oedipus’s father has died. . . . It emerges that this messenger was formerly a shepherd on Mount Cithaeron, and that he was given a baby. . . . The baby, he says, was given to him by another shepherd from the Laius household, who had been told to get rid of the child.
Pinker points out that this is a quick succession of passive sentences and their purpose is to make sure that older news is in the subject position and that new information comes later in the sentence. It also moves heavy phrases like “another shepherd from the Laius household” into the object position, where it can be further developed with words that come after it. We know the gist of what is happening and then we add on more or modify it later.
Pinker offers several other ways to change around the order of words, but using the passive voice is an important one he says not to avoid if it aids in comprehension.
I’ll tell you this week’s exercise after a word from our sponsor.
Write While True is sponsored by me. Ok, so I made something that I think is a good companion to the podcast, and I want to share it with you. In the very first episode of this podcast I told you about how I start every day by doing morning pages. I do 20-30 minutes of stream-of-consciousness writing and it helped me learn to write on demand. In episode 19, I followed that up with talking about prompted morning pages. This helps me not worry about what I’m going to write about.
So, I made 4 morning pages journals and put them up on Amazon. You can get them by going to https://loufranco.com/journals. Each journal has 30 days worth of prompts, with 2 pages for each prompt. It’s an 8.5 x 11 sized journal, so it takes me about 30 minutes to fill the two pages, which is perfect for morning pages.
So, go listen to episodes 1 and 19 and then go try out a journal. I think by the end of the 30 days you’ll learn what it feels like to write on demand and it will spill over into your normal writing.
Ok, back to the show.
I’m going to describe an exercise that is especially important if you are skeptical about the passive voice.
I mean, you already know Orwell, and Strunk and White, and you trust them. Maybe you don’t know Larry McEnerney or Steven Pinker or you don’t trust them and you don’t trust me.
Do the thing that Larry McEnerney said to do in his video.
Think of some book that you think was good writing, that you remember it as being something you enjoyed.
Something that was easy to comprehend and did a good job explaining a complicated subject.
Go back into it, pick a couple of pages of it just randomly inside the book.
Look for all the places where the author uses the passive voice. McEnerney said that in Politics and the English language, it was 20%. Check to see what it is in a book that you love.
This has been Write While True, a podcast where we’re okay with infinite loops as long as they’re fun.