Thursday, December 15, 2011

All the Tools in the Box

I was reminded the other day about all the "rules" people like to quote at us, as writers, of how we should (or more often, should not) be writing. 

The "should not" is the crucial bit here, because far more often than not, these rules tend to be things not to do.  Which is all well and good, but I've noticed that rules that ought to be phrased "try to avoid too much..." or "be aware of..." become gospel from on high: THOU SHALT NOT.

Sometimes I love hearing people spout these "rules", because then it means it's relatively safe to discount other things they have to say. 

1. Thou shalt not use passive voice.  On the whole, this is sensible advice.  However, more often than not, the person giving it does not know what passive voice actually is.  Here's a hint: it is not when the gerund form of the verb is used (as in "the boys were walking down the street".) Or anything to do with verb tense or helper verbs.  Here's passive voice in a nutshell: when the object of the action is the subject of the sentence.  Take "the boys were walking down the street".  What the subject?  The boys.  What's the action?  Walking.    Who was walking?  The boys.  The subject is doing the action.  Active voice.  Passive voice would be, "The street was walked upon by the boys."    Subject?  The street.  But the action is done by the boys.  Got it?  Good.

2. Thou shalt not use 'to be' in any form.  I've heard it said that using forms of 'to be' is "weak writing".  But you know what's really weak writing?  The kind of convoluted verbal cartwheels I've seen to avoid a simple "to be" sentence.  Sometimes it pays to be concise.

3. Thou shalt not use 'said'.  I'm of the school of thought that 'said' is an invisible word.  People don't get caught up in its repetition.  True, if you have a two-person conversation, their dialogue should be distinct enough that you don't need to indicate the speaker at every line.  But when you do tag, 'said' is nice and innocuous.  I'd also rather tack an adverb onto 'said' every once in a while instead of having characters chortled, exclaimed, exuded, implied or, god forbid, ejaculated.  I do like, when appropriate, asked, answered, whispered, muttered, murmured and shouted.  But on the whole, said gets the job done.

4. Thou shalt not use adverbs.  Yes, sometimes adverbs can be over done, and using an adverb is used where a stronger verb would do a better job, but adverbs are a useful tool, and they are part of the language for a reason.

Here's the thing: I'm against any rule that's about keeping the tools stuck in the box.  The words and tools are there, used them.

Plus, can you actually name a book you love that REALLY follows these rules?


leigh said...

Here here on point #3! I agree that "said" becomes invisible, since the more important part is who just spoke. If an emotion (that is stated) was attached to every single sentence of spoken dialogue, it would get very annoying very quickly.

Michael Caton said...

Amen to #1. When wannabe grammar Nazis trot out "don't use the passive voice" and clearly have no idea what it is, bad things, of a sort that I can't detail on a nice blog, should happen to them.

dbonfitto said...

In general, the passive voice is not 'economical' in terms of poetry and tends to involve grammatical hoop jumping. That said, sometimes it's the right tool for the job. e.g. If your subject is actually the street (because you're establishing setting, perhaps), and not the boys walking, then you want the passive voice.

I am firmly in the category of people who like using tools as weapons.

JHeaton said...

A person who quoted rule number three to me would be a person whose advice I would feel very safe ignoring. That's just bonkers, not to mention the exact oppose of every dialogue-writing tip I've ever read.