I know these posts seem egotistical in nature, as if through them I can crow about myself by alluding to “real writers,” I have known, but to me these posts are lessons in writing that any writer who aspires to write better might learn from. One of the hardest things for me has been learning how to write in the active voice, even having trouble what the difference was. Somehow I recognized good writing, but couldn’t begin to tell you how. I still have difficulty with that one. Maybe it’s the same with you.
I sidestep here a bit to that old picture storybook for children that belonged to my daughters when they were growing up. In it, Papa Pig was sent to the market by Mrs. Pig (who was awfully busy spring cleaning) ostensibly to select vegetables for the stew she would make for dinner, but of course we know it was a ploy to get him out of the house. As he picked and sorted among all the veggies, he wasn’t able to say why he wanted this or that thing and not another, even what would make a good stew. What he said instead in every case was, I may not know much about Rutabagas (or whatever), but I KNOW what I like. Put all of them together into a stew, and it would have to be good. But if we consciously want to write better, we need to know some things that go into good writing. I’m always open to learning.
September 4, 1999: It appears you sent this message to me by mistake. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading the nice things you said about my writing. Later, -Jim
[This came from a query I’d written Professor Bob, with a cc to Mr. P, asking if it was possible to write in a 100% active voice. I still hadn’t learned what the differences were between “active” and “passive” voice in writing. I’d been using Word’s grammar checker and every piece I wrote seemed to be at least 30% passive according to the checker. I wanted to as near to 0% if possible.]
September 4, 1999: Really it wasn’t a mistake. I got a nice lecture back from Dr. Bob (he really hasn’t retired I think!) which pointed out some obvious things–like I shouldn’t trust the grammar editor on a Word software. Actually I was hoping you’d send me your thoughts on the subject too. I suspect [know] that you are a born storyteller and your writing just flows on its own. Maybe good writers ARE born, not taught. Even if it’s not so, I’ve noticed good writers make it seem so. Some of mine does [flow], but no publisher ever seemed to like it so I just gave up pretty much. But something in me won’t let me give up doing things for my own satisfaction. Do you have anything to add, and more important, do you have the time to indulge me? Alice
September 5, 1999:I’m sure Bro Bob gave you good advice about Word’s grammar checker. I would add only this caveat: Never use Word’s (or anyone else’s) grammar checker unless you have absolutely no need to. About 3/4 of the suggestions are wrong. If you don’t know which to ignore, you’re much better off on your own.
As to voice, the fact that you are unable to write your piece entirely in the active voice should tell you something. If just ain’t English as she is meant to be writ. Try this: Find a piece published in a respectable rag similar to the piece you are working on that strikes you as well written and parse it for voice. That’ll give you and idea. Take the average of a dozen of ’em, and that will give you a better idea. But there’s no rule you can follow.
I have a theory that Southerners tend to use more passive constructions because they are somehow more polite. Sorry I’ve been absolutely no help.
I have posted the new material to my web site. It’s called The Gabriel Chronicle and is an alternate version of Genesis as seen by a New Zion Bible scholar. You can find me at either of these locations:
[Sadly, Geocities at Yahoo is no longer available, which is really too bad because there was a wealth of good writing to be found there!]
September 7, 1999: Thanks so much for the advice on the active voice, etc. The advice from both you and Dr. Bob was helpful. The point you made about Southern heritage making it harder for a person to use a real active voice was right on! Iused to have trouble saying anything out loud in a very authoritative voice–I always hedge by prefacing my remarks with stuff like “It’s my understanding…” or “from what I’ve seen documented…” etc. I’m getting better now. There’s a lot to be said for getting older in that respect! Being a female brought up in the south packed a double whammy as far as getting listened to. And in my family, being the “baby”, nobody gave any credence to anything I had to say. Probably that’s why I always “wrote” (most in my head growing up) because then I could be more forceful, more sure, and nobody could say I didn’t know what I was talking about. In my stories I was God and I could do or say whatever I wanted. Are writers always trying to justify their existence, you think?
I sandwiched time Sunday night to read the Chronicles in one sitting. How appropriate for the Sabbath, don’t you think? As expected, I loved it. As for clever writing, I think my favorite was Chapter 3; the artful way the serpent seduced Eve was a classic. You said it all without really saying it.
[A telling discovery! That’s exactly what I’d been striving to do–not having to explain what I’ve written to my reader. I’d realized by this time if you have to explain yourself or your story, you’re not crediting him/her with much intelligence, and need to work on showing without telling. Communicating well with words is no accident. I would begin to work on choosing them well.]