I helped a coworker with a business letter recently, a coworker I consider to be a generally good writer. This person, who is an articulate communicator in everyday life, still wrote a letter full of passive voice phrasing that overshadowed the main ideas. As we worked together to polish the letter, the incident reminded me how frequently good writing is invisible.
Good writing helps ideas shine and does not draw attention to itself. Rather than noticing the writing, the reader remembers the ideas. If you’re not looking for good writing, you won’t notice it very frequently. Bad writing, on the other hand, sticks out like a Raiders fan at a Cowboys game – you notice it immediately. Messy syntax, awkward phrasing, repetition, and heavy use of the passive voice jump up and beg for the spotlight, stealing it away from the ideas meant to draw our attention.
Letting the ideas shine isn’t just about good grammar; it’s also about using syntax and diction in a way that works with your ideas. Long sentences invite complex thoughts whereas short sentences draw your attention to one specific thing. Let’s look at an example of each within a couple sentences of each other from the first chapter of Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me Ultima. Young protagonist Antonio tells us:
My heart sank. When I thought of leaving my mother and going to school, a warm, sick feeling came to my stomach. To get rid of it, I ran to the pens we kept by the molino to feed the animals.
The first sentence draws your attention to the main idea – narrator Antonio is pretty upset. The second and third sentences, both compound sentences, expand on this idea and its consequences. Anaya helps us to focus on the ideas by using sentence structure and diction to his advantage.
Compound sentences generally emphasize the second thought. For example, listen to the difference here:
- The storm raged outside, but Jenny still got to go home.
- Jenny still got to go home, but the storm raged outside.
Even though the ideas are the same, the first sentence ends on a much happier note (Jenny got to go home!) than the second sentence (the storm raged). Every little bit makes a difference. Imagine what you as a writer are hoping to emphasize, and tidy up your diction and syntax to draw attention to that idea.
What other little tweaks help your ideas shine? How else can we revise our writing to focus attention on the story?
- Nathan Bransford: What People Talk About When They Talk About Bad Writing
- Pilgrimage: Writing by Rule, or Invisibility
- Can Good Writing Be Taught?
Beautiful put, Christi! I completely agree. When writing is best you don’t see the writer at work: you just read
Reblogged this on The Path – J. S. Collyer's Writing Blog and commented:
A very valid point summed up beautifully.
Thanks for visiting and reblogging!
My pleasure, thanks for writing such a great post!
Some great tips, thank you.
Thanks for stopping by!
I agree that good writing should be invisible. As a reader, that means the experience should be effortless. I shouldn’t have to think about what I’m reading, it should just flow. That’s really difficult to pull off from a writing standpoint, so I rely on my critique partners. They never fail to point out what doesn’t work.
Critique partners are super helpful at smoothing out the rough edges and nudging us in the right direction.
Great post. When I write creatively, I winnow out all unnecessary words so that I could get to the core of the idea. It’s a habit that grew out of business writing, but good practice for cancelling out that passive voice.
In Stephen King’s “On Writing,” he talks about taking out unnecessary words over and over, probably mentioning it more than any other tip. Winnowing out the extra words is a really great habit to build and have.
Coming from an academic background, it was a bit of an adjustment for me to leave the passive behind at first. Writing in that world isn’t quite as particular about action words. But as with everything, practice makes the process become more second nature.
Wonderful post as always!
Very helpful post, Christi. I never thought about a compound sentence that way. The note you end on being so vital to the idea you wish to communicate. It makes so much sense.
Nice post, Christi. I especially appreciate the compound sentence storm reference. I’ll watch for this in the future. Thanks!
Great post Christi! Here’s a tip I learned, in response to the questions at the end of your post.
I recently had my manuscript professionally critiqued by writer Alison Acheson, who recommended that I stop using words that denote thinking, in order to draw the reader more firmly into my main protagonist’s head (and so enhance a connection).
For instance, instead of writing: “I decided to take the long the way home,” Acheson suggested I simply write: “I took the long way home.” She likened using “thought words” (decided, thought, doubt, considered, etc.) in a story to telling a friend: “I’m thinking about asking you if you want to grab a coffee,” instead of the much more immediate: “Let’s grab a coffee.”
As I reedit my work, I find this technique interesting and helpful.
We all hunger to write like this.
I totally agreed with your post today. Two other things to target for this kind of “invisible writing” (other than eliminating passive voice and using the correct sentence length for the effect you want to create): 1) roundabout sentences that use lots of embedded clauses that are unnecessary and confusing, 2) cut repetitive sentences.
Like Carrie, I come from a field where academic writing is required. Passive voice, sentences with multiple clauses, paragraphs reaching half a page in length…. It’s tedious! It still likes to sneak into my fiction, but I’m getting better at taming it.