Image Credit: Peter Stackpole, “A raven typing his own name on the typewriter” (1939), LIFE Photo Collection via Google Arts & Culture
By Jason Zweig | Nov. 25, 2018 8:35 pm ET
In Part One of this series, we looked at getting started on becoming a better writer: how to get unstuck, how to find your voice, how to use the first person without abusing it. In this installment, let’s go one level deeper: how to handle words so they work for you instead of against you.
In writing, as in life, the easiest advice can be the hardest to follow.
“Avoid the passive voice.”
Your English teacher taught you that in sixth grade. Your college professor scribbled it in the margin of your essay. Every book or blog about writing harangues you about it.
Because the advice is so universal, and because the instances of the problem are often so obvious, avoiding the passive seems like a battle you can win without any effort.
YourDictionary.com offers some examples that make identifying and eradicating the passive seem almost ludicrously easy:
Harry ate six shrimp at dinner. (active)
At dinner, six shrimp were eaten by Harry. (passive)
Beautiful giraffes roam the savannah. (active)
The savannah is roamed by beautiful giraffes. (passive)
Sue changed the flat tire. (active)
The flat tire was changed by Sue. (passive)
We are going to watch a movie tonight. (active)
A movie is going to be watched by us tonight. (passive)
I ran the obstacle course in record time. (active)
The obstacle course was run by me in record time. (passive)
I mean, c’mon! You know better than that! You would never write anything as dopey as “The obstacle course was run by me” or “The flat tire was changed by Sue”!
So getting rid of the passive must be a breeze.
It isn’t. YourDictionary.com implies that all passive structures hinge on various forms of the verb to be: am, is, was, were. That would make the passive effortlessly identifiable.
Passive language is the bane of every writer’s existence, whether you know it or not. Passive wording is the plague within you: Just as none of us ever stops to think of the approximately 100 trillion microbes that populate our gastrointestinal tract, novice and experienced writers alike almost never notice how their writing teems with passive phrasing. Unlike the microbes that live in your gut, however, the passive language that infests your writing is almost never beneficial.
Passive language is insidious and relentless; it never goes away, never ceases trying to kill your potential as a writer.
You can stab it and stomp on it and delete it on sight, and the instant you turn your back on it or breathe a sigh of relief that it is gone, you have reopened yourself to infection. A split-second of complacency or inattention, and the passive will knock your writing flat again.
You can never eradicate the passive virus; you can only reduce how severe it is. Work hard enough at fighting it, and you can win the battle, but the war will last your entire lifetime. You wage it on behalf of your readers: They will know whether you are winning or losing.
→ If you are to find your way as a writer, you must use words that are fresh; you can’t use other people’s leftover language.
The first step is to notice, with new eyes, how passive your writing is. The passive is not just a voice, in the technical, grammatical sense of the relationship between a verb and its subjects or objects; it’s a stance, an attitude, a way of letting language handle you instead of the other way around.
If you ever find yourself typing that something “…will have an effect on…” or “…had an impact on…,” it isn’t your writing that’s passive. It’s you! How dare you pretend that you are providing any information by telling your reader that something will have an “impact” or an “effect” on something else? Nearly everything in the universe has an effect or an impact on other things! Delete that passive crud and tell us what will happen: It “…will devastate…” or “…will rejuvenate…” or “…will eradicate…” or “…will repair…” without resorting to the pallid abstractions of “impact” or “effect” or “result.”
Or take this example:
There is a growing number of people who find themselves using smart phones to track whether their friendships are healthy.
Let’s pick that apart. It’s passive in at least three ways.
1.) The “there is a” is unnecessary. It’s one of the most common, and annoying, crutches of passive language. “There is a reason for the shortfall in wheat production:…” Well, duh! Instead, say: “Wheat production fell short because….” (Note how, when you do this, the clunky noun string “the shortfall in” naturally turns into a simple verb structure: “fell short.”) Once you develop the habit of recognizing “there is” as passive language that serves no purpose, you will be able to look at “There was somebody at the door” and automatically edit it to “Somebody was at the door.”
- A related waste of words: “It was a thrill for me to meet her.” No: “I was thrilled to meet her.” Don’t use nine words when six will do better. Be relentless in stripping your sentences of any extraneous words, no matter how small, that clog up the action.
So: If the number is growing, just say that, without the “there is a.”
That gives us:
A growing number of people find themselves using smart phones to track whether their friendships are healthy.
2.) Did something odd just happen? Do you notice that, without the “There is,” the “A growing number of people” looks exposed somehow? Before, we might have read right through it or past it. Now, without the vague illusion of authority imposed by “There is a,” we want to know: How many people? How fast is that number growing?
What I can assure you, from perpetrating similar abominations myself, is that the person who wrote that sentence didn’t know. If 5 million people used their phones for that purpose last year, but 7 million people are this year, the writer would have told us.
“There is a growing number of people who…” means nothing more, and nothing less, than “I have no idea how many people…”
That brings us to Zweig’s Law of Passive Language:
Writers resort to passive wording when they are actively trying to hide something.
…and its First Corollary:
The thing they are trying to hide is usually their ignorance.
3.) Why are these people with the smart phones “finding themselves”? They’re not in an ashram or a hippie commune. They are, unfortunately, in the hands of a writer who is piling up verbiage like balsa wood to try covering the hollowness of the premise.
And that brings us to the Second Corollary of the Law of Passive Language…
Another thing they are trying to hide is the emptiness or flimsiness of an idea.
To review: We started out with this sentence:
There is a growing number of people who find themselves using smart phones to track whether their friendships are healthy.
Purged of the passive, it would read:
Approximately [insert number here] people are using smart phones to track whether their friendships are healthy.
If you can’t insert that number, maybe you should abandon the premise.
Notice that nothing in the original sentence meets the textbook definition of passive. But it’s hard to imagine a sentence much less active than that one.
Because I’m trying to hammer my hatred of the passive into everyone’s heads, let me offer a few more examples:
“The formation of the new government occurred after the rebels…”
“The debate between Democrats and Republicans concerns whether…”
“The misunderstanding among customers involved the price of…”
To concern, to happen, to involve, to occur, to represent, to mark, to illustrate, to symbolize, to signify, are what I call “distancing verbs.” Used like this, they insert a superfluous buffer between the subject of a sentence and the action. They don’t meet the classic definition of “passive,” but they are passive: They can turn a good, direct sentence into a lame, halting mess.
Look more closely at those three examples. Do you see what they have in common? In each case, the writer has taken the logical choice for the verb that should drive the sentence and turned it into a noun — creating the need for a distancing verb that can barely pull its own weight. “Form” is a good, simple, direct verb that the writer has bloated into the noun chain of “the formation of,” which then necessitates the addition of “occurred.” In the next example, “debate” (as a verb) becomes “the debate” (as a noun) “between.” In the last one, “misunderstand” becomes “the misunderstanding among.”
In each case, the distancing verb is extraneous. Turn the noun structure back into an active verb and then kill the distancing verb:
The formation of the new government occurred after the rebels…” (passive)
“The rebels formed the new government after they…” (active)
The debate between Democrats and Republicans concerns whether…” (passive)
“Democrats and Republicans are debating whether…” (active)
The misunderstanding among the customers involved the price of…” (passive)
“The customers misunderstood the price of…” (active)
In a similar failure, some verbs feel active but fade into passivity in the wrong hands. Look what happens to the energetic verb “to stem” in this sentence:
One reason why the struggling retail chain survived for years stemmed from the fact that consumers couldn’t find cheaper prices elsewhere.
What is this junk about “one reason” that “stemmed from the fact that”? The reason didn’t stem from anything!
To make the sentence active, do this:
The struggling retail chain survived for years because consumers couldn’t find cheaper prices elsewhere.
That makes the sentence a full 33% shorter, much clearer, and much more active. It also makes it say what the writer means.
A subtle form of passive language is hard to spot but easy to fix. For example:
The President said Congress was likely to approve the bill by Tuesday, despite many members of both houses being away from the nation’s capital for the long holiday weekend.
That “despite…being” or “despite [VERB]-ing” structure is common as dust and just as appealing. So far as I can tell, it’s become common because so many people refuse to write the simplest of all verbs: is, was, and were. These “despite…being” abominations are the written equivalent of those weirdly contorted fragments, cobbled around an “-ing” structure, that TV newsreaders intone to avoid acknowledging that the news they are reading is already old: “Congress voting today, David, to appropriate $10 billion in funding for hurricane relief.” Sentences built around “despite…[VERB]ing” use a similar sleight-of-hand to try hiding their passivity. Kill the “despite,” and you get:
The President said Congress was likely to approve the bill by Tuesday, though many members of both houses are away from the nation’s capital for the long holiday weekend.
It’s simpler, cleaner, and more active.
By now you may be asking yourself: Why does this guy make such a big deal out of such little things? Who cares if I use a few unnecessary words? What’s the difference if I let some passive language sneak through?
The answer is simple: Writing better is all about paying attention to the smallest details. If you don’t treat each word with exquisite care, you can’t improve.
→Most people handle words as if they were pennies: light, cheap, dispensable. Instead, I want you to handle them as if they were manhole covers or 45-pound weights in the gym. Think before you pick them up. Look before you put them down. Make sure you choose the right one and put it in the right place. Words shouldn’t be cheap to you and interchangeable. They should be dear to you and fit-for-purpose.
I hope by now you’ve picked up the guiding principle of minimizing passive language: Have you made the logic of action in each sentence as simple and direct as possible? Is it clear who or what is the cause and who or what is affected? Are you tying unneeded words to the ankles of the subjects and objects of the sentence? Are you letting verbs do their work, or are you treating them as if they can’t move without crutches and canes?
As for me, I estimate that I’ve written about 425,000 words for The Wall Street Journal over the past decade. It wouldn’t surprise me if at least 20,000 of them were wasted —
— Hey! I meant, “It wouldn’t surprise me if I wasted at least 20,000 words.”
That’s how prevalent the passive is in my own writing. I can’t type more than two or three sentences without having to uproot another passive structure. After decades of practice, I’ve trained myself to spot most of them as soon as I write them, so I’m able to kill them instantly. But I’d estimate that at least 5% of my writing, perhaps much more, sneaks past me contaminated with passive wording. I can assure you that I’ll be reading this post down the road, after I publish it, and I’ll find a handful of passive phrases I missed now that will infuriate me then.
All you can do is try to purge all the passive wording from your writing. You will fail and fail and fail again. I’ve been failing at it my entire life. But trying to expunge every instance of passive language from every sentence will make your writing far better than it is — no matter how good it already may be.
Clichés: Growing Like Topsy, Multiplying Like Rabbits, Spreading Like Wildfire, Sprouting Like Mushrooms After a Rain
I regard clichés as just another form of passive language. Every time you write “going south” or “going through the roof” or “taking a nosedive” or “the only game in town” or “I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole” or “a veritable Who’s Who of [whatever]” or “off on a wild goose chase” or “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” or “paying the piper” or “shooting the lights out” or “shoot first, ask questions later,” these words are happening to you; you aren’t making them happen. You aren’t writing; you aren’t even typing; your fingers are moving as mindlessly and automatically as they do when you button your shirt in the dark.
Some clichés get so overused that people have to mangle them to make them seem fresh. Consider how often people use “unchartered waters“ in place of “uncharted waters,” or “the 800-pound elephant in the room” instead of [either] “the 800-pound gorilla” or “the elephant in the room.” An 800-pound elephant is one small pachyderm; three to six tons would be more like it. (For that matter, gorillas weigh much less than 800 pounds.) When you have to garble a cliché to make it seem fresh, you know your language has lost any semblance of life.
And clichés don’t consist only of tired proverbs as “two heads are better than one” or “a stitch in time saves nine.” One of the biggest mistakes an aspiring writer can make is to assume that you can easily avoid perpetrating clichés if only you steer clear of obviously proverbial language. That’s much too narrow a view! A cliché is any wording that springs automatically to mind and types itself, as if it has kidnapped your hands, but that falls apart at the slightest touch:
(“I was there, and I’ve never witnessed anything like it. But, rather than use vivid language to show you, I’ll just tell you. Maybe if you read a few more paragraphs, I’ll finally get around to making you feel what I felt.”)
(“Trust me: You do want to read about this thing I’m describing, although I can’t be bothered yet to explain why.”)
“a serious crisis”
(if a crisis isn’t serious, what is it?)
“in a very real sense”
(What would “a partly real sense” be? So the “very” adds nothing. Delete it! How does “in a real sense” differ from “in a sense”? Delete it! Now that you’re left with only “in a sense,” which sense? You don’t know, do you? Go back to the drawing board. Figure out what you mean, and say that.)
“on a weekly basis”
“despite the fact that”
“in a state of anxiety”
“the reasons are three-fold”
(“the three reasons are…”)
“a disaster of epic / catastrophic / historic proportions”
(And what would those proportions be: a mile wide and 10 feet tall? If you’re trying to say “it will go down in history,” what makes you so sure? Show, don’t tell: How bad is the damage? Give us numbers or imagery, not a lame reference to “proportions.”)
(What might “mitigated gall” be?)
“mounting concerns / mounting pressure / mounting evidence”
(Everything seems to be “mounting” nowadays; if you grew up around farm animals, as I did, the thought of using that term in serious prose would make you burst out laughing)
“He disappeared under mysterious circumstances.”
(“He disappeared mysteriously” or “No one knows how or why he disappeared.”)
“The weather forecast calls for rainy conditions.”
(“It will probably rain.”)
“The car dealership is holding a sales event.”
(“The car dealership is holding a sale.”)
“That’s how innovation occurs in the social-media space.”
(“That’s how innovation occurs in social media.”)
“He’s argumentative by nature.”
“The company’s clout is such that…”
(“The company has so much clout that…”)
“The crime was a terrible one.”
(“The crime was terrible.”)
“in some ways” / “in certain aspects”
(Which ways or aspects might those be?)
“The groups are similar with respect to their income and net worth.”
(“The groups have similar income and net worth.”)
“in terms of”
“…is at this point in time…”
As the great Viennese journalist Karl Kraus wrote, “The closer one looks at a word, the farther away it moves.” Your goal should be to treat every word you write as an alien object: You should be able to look at it and say, What is that doing here? Why did I use that word instead of a better one? What am I trying to say here? How can I get to where I’m going if I use such stale and lifeless words?
You want to slash passive language out of your writing just as a tropical explorer blazing a trail hacks through the underbrush with a machete.
The more intensely I write, the more often I mutter under my breath, Get out of my way. I’m talking to myself, and I’m talking to all the junk words that aren’t mine: Get out of my way!
In the third part of this series, next week, we’ll talk about the final step: taking criticism and becoming your own most brutal critic.
For further reading: