You were badly advised
The Internet brims with advice for writers, much of it useful and all of it well-intended. But when I see some of the maxims broadcast on Twitter, I suspect that reducing the principles to 140 characters can be counterproductive.
The other day Jon Winokur,* tweeting as @AdviceToWriters, quoted George Orwell: “Never use the passive where you can use the active.” Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. I understand quite well that in bureaucratic writing the passive voice is an instrument for the weasely evasion of responsibility. But there are times — when the actor performing the action is not known, or when the action is more important than the actor — that the passive voice is not only acceptable but preferable. (Note the headline for this post.)
The Strunk and White mantra “omit needless words” also turns up regularly. Yes, if I am trying to cook a brisket, I probably do not need an explanation of the regulations for kosher slaughter or the writer’s reminiscence of how her grandmother cooked one. Economy of words for the purpose is a good thing.
But first you have to judge what the purpose is. I suppose you could machine Sir Thomas Browne down to resemble Francis Bacon, but the woolly discursiveness of Hydriotaphia or Urne Buriall is where the charm lies. Who would wish to turn Tom Wolfe (or Thomas Wolfe, for that matter) into Ernest Hemingway? Well, maybe you would, but that just points to how wide variances of individual tastes can be.
Writing is just not easy — “the lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne” — and one-size-fits-all advice can inhibit the formation of sound judgment rather than foster it.
Last week, responding to my post on bullying teachers who enforce idiotic rules, Carol Fisher Saller posted a more nuanced response at her excellent blog, The Subversive Copy Editor: “Rules are the floats young learners cling to while learning to swim. Mind, I won’t excuse a high-school or college teacher-bully who demands that paragraphs consist of exactly five sentences or who ban the use of the word “thing.” The best teachers will figure out how to model flexibility as opposed to laying down the law. But if reducing English grammar and writing to a teachable science results in some overstated rules now and then, maybe we can consider it a valid—and temporary—stage of learning.”
That is true. Some simplification early on will keep the student from sinking in bewilderment. Otherwise, they have to deal with, for example, what I tell my editing students at Loyola about the Associated Press Stylebook: The numbers one through nine are always written as words rather than numerals, except when they’re not.”
But mind the gap, as they say on the London Underground. Between the simplified introductory rules or one-sentence maxims and some level of mastery of the craft yawns a wide divide. That is the space in which judgment has to develop, judgment about what the purpose is, who the reader is, how much discursivenes or economy will suit both the purpose and the reader. Be careful about whatever is stitched on that sampler above your desk (ooh, passive voice again); it may not be as helpful as you think.
*Not, please, to be taken as a swipe at Mr. Winokur, an estimable gentleman and reader of this blog. He merely supplied me with an opening.