Our title is stolen from one of my favorite professors (at UCLA, over a quarter century ago) -- Richard A. Lanham, author of Style: An Anti-Textbook and the indispensable Revising Prose (to name just two). The themes of these two books: Ignore what your profs said, people really like style (flair, self-presentation), and Don't overwrite, respectively. They're geared to nonfiction writing, and literal obedience to the latter (RP) could defeat the point of the former (S:A-T); and as a general thing, writing "rules" aren't anything of the kind. But two basic lessons I took away from the brilliant and engaging Professor Lanham, for What To Do To Your Prose So It Won't Just Lie There:
(1) Replace your passive verbs with active verbs. Then, (2) Read the passage aloud, and listen to find where you're still bogging down.
I intended to write a sample passage, in bogged-down and then revised versions. I found this impossibly difficult: I've spent decades training myself to avoid both passive voice and clunky construction, and my Writing Machine refused to do it, even to provide an example it could then correct. Hrrrrm.
Okay, let's just define the terms, provide very brief examples (recalling that examples don't make for deathless prose), then get out.
(1) Passive vs. Active Verbs/Voice: Means verbs of "being" versus verbs of "doing" or "action." Passive voice often leaves the actor or initiator unrevealed (e.g., "Don was in an accident" vs. "Sandra ran Don down with her Volvo"*), and always dampens the effect; active voice, OTOH, specifies (in Lanham's phrase) "who's kicking whom" (he really said "who's kicking who," in an attempt not to seem stilted, but I am a grammar dweeb), and tends to sharpen effect. Another way to put this: as Lanham memorably scribbled on one of my papers in his Renaissance Lit class (not an exact quote): "Try doing without the 'is' verb form for a trial period -- say, five years."
(a) Passive Voice: Bob was due on the football field in five minutes. It was normally seven minutes away. As he was going there, Bob realized he was very tired. This was not where he wanted to be.
Now circle the forms of "to be" above -- the "was"-es -- then compare with:
(b) Active Voice: Bob had five minutes to get to the football field. The trip normally took seven minutes. As he loped down, a wave of exhaustion washed through him. He wished he didn't have to go.
Even deliberately suppressing fancy verbs (as I am), see the diff?
Again, there are exceptions: sometimes a Hemingwayesque "The sky was cold and hard and gray" can be just as evocative (particularly with non-human "actors" like the sky). But as a general thing, revise for "who's-kicking-who(m)," then add active verbs for the kicks. ;)
(Why does this work? Because (as a rule) passive verbs inform us, and active verbs make us feel things -- which latter intensifies the hypnotic effect fiction is meant to have. Compare "Don was being kissed by Sandra" to "Sandra gave Don's lip a gentle bite, then kissed him deeply."**)
(2) Now let's take our already-revised prose (1(b) above), and reread aloud, for sound. This is even more subjective, and it's arguable here that using four short, choppy, sorta dull sentences actually helps you, by echoing Bob's exhaustion. But to take the simplest possible example, let's try to revise to alternate our sentence lengths, like so:
Bob had five minutes to get to the football field, a seven minute walk. Resigned, he loped down, a wave of exhaustion washing through him. Boy, did he not wanna do this.
That last sentence is a sort of cheat: a bit of added characterization in Bob's own "voice," a trick we covered in our last writing post (uhh, "Tricks O' Th' Trade," wasn't it?). Anyway, hope some of this is interesting, and/or helpful. :)
93 93/93 -- AJ
P.S. Even if you spell well, use spellcheck. This won't catch misused words (e.g. affect for effect in this post: some stuff, one just has to learn), but it will catch typos, to which even geniuses are prone. ;)
* Which is why lawyers spend so much of their time writing in passive voice: it conceals blame, for example.
** While I am sparing with them, I don't (much as I love, and owe, him!) share Stephen King's irrational hatred of adverbs.