Paragraphs, passive voice and positivity…

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 14.23.57So here I am – after a time – back on my journey through Stunk and White’s Elements of Style and my attempt at applying every single rule to my manuscript.

Today covers rules 13, 14 and 15, and can I just say how nice it was of S&W to group these rules together thus allowing me to alliterate them into a catchy title. Thanks.

Anyway, on with the post.

Rule 13. Make the paragraph the unit of composition.

This rule basically tells us that writers should use the paragraph as a means of communicating intent to the reader. A paragraph can be used introduce a new topic as well as defining separate dialogue and punctuating prose. S&W make a good point on paragraph length saying in general, remember that paragraphing calls for a good eye as well as a logical mind. Enormous blocks of print look formidable to readers, who are often reluctant to tackle them. (True) But remember, too, that firing off many short paragraphs in quick succession can be distracting.

For me personally, I think the paragraph is a solid tool for creating style and finding one’s voice, and although I agree with S&W, I also think there is plenty of room for manoeuvre. Like they also say, moderation and a sense of order should be the main considerations in paragraphing.

Rule 14: Always use the active voice.

Oh God. Here we go. No matter how many times I am explained this rule, I still cannot grasp it. Maybe S&W and can make sense of it for me…

Nope. That didn’t help either. I still don’t grasp this rule. I don’t think I’ll ever get a grip on the passive voice. Besides, that’s what editors are for. Isn’t it?

I shall simply re-iterate what all writers are told: don’t use the passive voice if you can avoid it as it can make you writing harder to comprehend and less forcible. I shall simply have to hope my writing doesn’t contain too many passive sentenaces, because no matter how much I read on the subject, it just gets more confusing.

So, moving swiftly on…

Rule 15: Put statements in positive form.

Ah, now here’s an interesting rule. In brief, consciously or unconsciously, the reader is dissatisfied with being told only what is not; the reader wishes to be told what is. This is referring to the word ‘not’. If possible, try to find ways around using it too often, because there’s usually an alternative. Never use the word ‘not’ as an evasion. I’m not so sure how much this applies to fiction, but S&W argue, if your every sentence admits a doubt, your writing will lack authority. They also argue against the overuse of words such as may, could, never, etc.

Here are a couple of examples where I applied this to my manuscript:

The detection suites mounted aboard modern warships were second only to those employed on deep-space exploration vessels, but the technology was not without its weaknesses.

The detection suites mounted aboard modern warships were second only to those employed on deep-space exploration vessels, but the technology was limited.

Riggs was not convinced.

Riggs was unconvinced.

The above examples (I think) are both improved by the application of rule 15. And going further, this has been such a revelation that I shall write a separate post on this topic and provide more examples of the improvements this rule can deliver.

So, just as I was starting to get bogged down in past participles, passive voice, subject/object clauses, conjunctions and other such confusing writing thingamajigs and oojamaflops I can’t quite grasp, Strunk and White hit a home-run and present me with yet another tool with which to tighten up my manuscript. Thanks, guys.

Tune in next time for rules 16, 17, 18, and we’ll se what other priceless jewels of prose perfection these boys can come up with.

Thanks for reading.



16 comments on “Paragraphs, passive voice and positivity…

  1. Thank goodness! Another person in the world who can’t comprehend the passive voice. Every time the phrase pops up, I have to ask. For me, it’s like the New York Stock Exchange – I cannot comprehend anything about it. There we have it: life’s two incomprehensibles: the NY Stock Exchange and the Passive Voice.

  2. gpeynon says:

    I’ve just noticed that I called Strunk ‘Stunk’ in the opening line. Oops. Oh well, it must be expected when a name like that meets predictive text.

  3. Thank you so much for posting these. Please keep them coming.

    • gpeynon says:

      Oh you’re welcome, and thanks for visiting. There will be plenty more to come – I think there are 40 rules in total.

      • Strunk has 22, White has 21, I think. I followed a nifty little homemade youtube series on the 1-17 grammar rules, but the series ended there. I’ve searched the web for someone to expand on the style. I’m a long time amateur writer looking to step up my game, and while S&W is self explanatory, I was looking for affirmations/expansions/opinions. This has been the best one, so far. Grammar Girl is a good resource, but from what I’ve seen, she’s a little anti S&W. A lot of folks are, but I dig the practicality. When I understand the rules and the clarity they give to the work, then I’ll have the charisma and dynamics to break them. There’s nothing better than broken rules in literature, but only by authors who know what they’re doing. I also did a little research on the active/passive situation, and I think it has to be the most criticized and least understood rule. I haven’t watched this guy’s whole series, but he just drags this rule in the following video: Anyway, thanks again. I look forward to the next breakdown.

      • gpeynon says:

        Oh dear, he really doesn’t like this book does he? I admit, Strunk’s advice on this issue is definitely confusing, but there are other elements to their book (pardon the pun) that really are helpful – as I’m constantly discovering in this series of posts.

        I love broken rules of grammar in literature, but I agree with you entirely: the author has to know what they are doing. Have you read Last Exit to Brooklyn? That book really breaks the rules. It’s brilliant.

  4. It’s absolutely impossible for me to find the passive sentences in my own writing, but I really like this article about it and hopefully it will help me. It took me forever just to know what in the world passive voice means, let alone even try to fix it! 🙂

  5. Not sure why it marked me anonymous. I think I fixed it.

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