March 27th 2008 08:13
Challenging Conventional Wisdom
Conventional wisdom tells us much about what constitutes "good," or "quality" writing. But, is conventional wisdom always right?
The Conventional Principles of Good Writing
The following principles are, according to conventional wisdom, virtually indispensable to all good writing. I present them here, along with my own thoughts about each.
Brevity Equals Clarity
Principle 1: Avoid wordiness at all costs. Simplicity and brevity are always best. Use short sentences and few words to convey your ideas more clearly.
My Response: An overly concise writing style sacrifices literary smoothness and sophistication. Even in business writing, it's critically important to maintain an intelligent, professional, and authoritative tone, which is rarely accomplished by over-simplicity or excessive brevity.
I would, in fact, contend that the problem of unclear writing isn't at all caused by wordiness, per se, but rather by a lack of facility in the effective use of language to convey thought. When a writer makes every word count, crafting each sentence, clause, and phrase with care, words become the source of a richness and breadth of self-expression that would be impossible to achieve with fewer words and less-complex sentence structure.
Such writing unquestionably requires greater concentration and mental processing on the part of the reader. Yet that effort is rewarded by the pleasure of partaking in the gourmet literary fare the writer has created just for the reader's enjoyment. As writers, our job is not to spoon feed our readers miniscule servings of pablum, but to provide a fabulous spread of grand ideas beautifully garnished with well-chosen words and phrases.
Simple language has its place, to be sure. Yet, when we limit ourselves to its exclusive use, we deprive our readers of the transcendent power of language to raise our consciousness above the mundane, the everyday, the commonplace. We ground their imaginations, preventing them from reaching the heights of thought to which they are capable. And that is not what great writing is about.
As for sentence length, variation is the ideal. Breaking up more complex sentences by varying them with shorter ones can give the reader a much-needed breather, clearing the way for the next great idea. And just as too many complex sentences in a row without a break can cause mental "exhaustion" in a reader, so also can too many short sentences in a row have the opposite effect, creating an unpleasant, choppy, uncoordinated feel that leaves the reader bored and dissatisfied. Short sentences can deliver ideas with impact--but only when they are the exception and not the rule.
Passive Voice is Passe
Principle 2: Avoid passive voice (like the plague). Active voice is always best.
My Response: Passive voice has its place and can be used quite effectively to achieve a more detached, clinical, authoritative, or exalted tone. Voice is entirely dependent on the writer's purpose for a piece, and passive voice is simply one writing technique that can improve a piece of writing when properly used--and when not overused. Passive voice can provide a refreshing variation from active voice when used periodically to make a piece more interesting. Passive voice can also be used to create a less forward, challenging, or accusatory tone.
Don't fear passive voice; rather, use it with wisdom, discretion, and intention--or don't. The choice is entirely up to you. You certainly aren't required to use it; but don't feel as if you mustn't, either.* Passive voice, like any other writing technique, is simply one tool in the writer's arsenal--perhaps one of the more specialized tools, which are used less often than the standard ones--but, nevertheless, one which is there to be used when needed. In writing, as in everything else, we always want to use the right tool for the right job.
Adjectives Are Out
Principle 3: Use adjectives sparingly; in fact, remove as many of them as possible from your writing.
My Response: I've received many a chuckle from this rule, as I've studied the paragraphs in which various writers have expounded the rule, mentally removing all the adjectives that hadn't been removed by them (note the non-accusatory passive voice here), only to find that, alas, the paragraphs that remained made little sense. I fear that most of us are unaware of the importance of the much-maligned adjective.
In my view, there's absolutely nothing wrong with adjectives. They're wonderful creations, which, when properly used, can add much to our writing. There's little doubt that the adjective is sometimes overused and that it often causes laziness in our choice of nouns by allowing us the luxury of using less-colorful, less-descriptive, or less-precise nouns. But my personal belief is that it's far more important to remove adverbs from our writing than adjectives, because removing adverbs forces us to use livelier verbs, which energizes our writing.
Adjectives should never be used simply to avoid the work involved in mining our vocabularies for the right noun to express our thought. But, neither should we fear the well-placed adjective, which adds substance to a sentence and builds descriptive power into our writing.
Those are my personal thoughts on a few of the rules of conventional writing wisdom.
What do you think?
* This sentence illustrates the happy marriage of passive and active voice. The first clause is passive, the second active. (This entire paragraph in fact represents the friendly give and take between active and passive voice. As you can see by the unforced variation between them, the two can indeed peacefully coexist.)
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