« Sometimes on Sunday | Main | Telling all »

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.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:34 AM | | Comments (8)


My mistake: Mr. Throckmorton was copy desk chief at Lexington, not the A.M.E.

Thanks for this post. The passive voice has many honorable uses, which is why it is still with us. The Zealots Against the Passive Voice is a vast organization, I have spent far too much time trying to get the members of my local chapter to recognize when their proposed cure worse than the disease.

I used to get paid for it. Perhaps I will again. Sigh.

Also, I accept the passive voice when 1) it is important to mood; 2) recasting the sentence would be problematic.

What a lovely description of Sir T.B.'s 'Urn-Burial 'wooly discursiveness'. i like it! And i thought The Baltimore Sun was just a fiction of the T.V. series 'The Wire'!

No offense taken. In fact I agree: A few tweets after Orwell's denunciation of the passive voice, I quoted Harold Pinter: “There are some good rules and there are some lousy rules.”

Indeed, in “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell concludes his list of writing commandments with “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

Over the years I've collected quite a few self-contradictory couplets of writing advice in which both bits seem true.

The trick, I guess, is to have the judgment to accept advice that least at the moment. How do we develop that judgment? From reading and writing, and from learning the rules before we attempt to break them.

Maybe Sophy Burnam said it best: “The methods, even the ideas, of successful writers contradict each other in a most heartening way, and the only element I find common to all successful writers is persistence—an overwhelming determination to succeed.”

Passive is not necessarily wrong, I agree, and well-used it can add both clarity and brevity.

But in my experience as a researcher, the passive voice is frequently taken as sounding authoritative and knowledgeable by students, so they proceed to use the passive whenever even remotely possible.

Constructions like "The results were recorded and a log-polar graph was plotted." doesn't make anybody happy. Or even worse "A two-factor experimental protocol was decided on." You did the work - take the credit for it! "We recorded the results and created a log-polar graph." "We decided to use a two-factor experimental protocol."

You can see a very neat effect of this in the scientific literature: older and more distinguished authors will use active voice and personal reflections more than younger, less established researchers. Papers in highly regarded journals will have active voice more than lower-status publications.

When you have nothing to prove, you can be yourself I guess.

What does "machine down" mean, and how long has it been a verb?

In this context, "machine down" means to remove material with a machine such as a lathe or a mill.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected