Saturday, August 6, 2011

Verbs Make Good Writing

Often people who want their language to sound intellectual or highbrow succeed only in detaching themselves from their prose.  They employ passive voice and excessive auxiliary verbs, resulting in writing that floats around the topic without ever effectively engaging and driving through it.  Such writing wilts on the page, so that readers have to force themselves to slog through sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph of writing that comes off almost exactly as interesting as limp leaves of lettuce.

Teachers of writing of course excoriate this practice; they rail against passive voice almost by habit, and implore aspiring writers to make their prose active.  But I seldom see anything that approaches the reasons for the problem.  They blast passive voice and "weak" verbs as simply bad writing.

That accusation carries some truth, of course.  I would argue, though, that some writers use these techniques intentionally, or at least use them because they are modeling their writing after others who did so.  By exploring and undermining some of the reasons for which people write so antiseptically, we can perhaps do more to help writers move past the resulting blandness.

The Ivory Tower

Much academic writing plays in passive voice and auxiliary verbs.  While academia at present is working to move past this, one can certainly see reasons it has traditionally wallowed in it.  One can be attributed to the metaphorical Ivory Tower.  The most prestigious academic institutions, for many years, prided themselves in approaching the world as bastions of intellectual glory that, while existing in the world, thrived separately from it.  Thus, prose that came alive from within a topic would seem to undermine that role.  Thus, one might write, "Although racism as public policy has disappeared, millions have been, and continue to be, affected by racism every day," rather than "Federal and state governments eliminated Jim Crow laws over time, but individuals and groups continue to punish minorities every day simply for the color of their skin."  The former seeks to remain above the fray, explaining without engaging, while the latter slips into the moment itself, reading as though it comes from within rather than without.

This approach, however, ignores something important about how language works: writing already exists separately from that to which it refers.  Semiotics and deconstruction teach (or in the minds of some, taught) that words refer to things or ideas, rather than being those things or people.  The word "chair" is not a chair; rather, it refers to an object--and without clarification, it may refer to, for example, a stool, a recliner, a rocking chair, or the wheeled, swiveling, leather-covered object on which I am sitting now.  We can write with more precision to try to make the referent more specific, and thus leave the same idea in most readers.  But if we think of the levels of separation between writer and reader, we have (1) the thing or concept in the writer's experience, (2) experienced in a unique way by that writer, (3) put into words in which the writer hopes to convey that experience, (4) the reader's interpretation of those words, (5) affected by things, ideas, or experiences that the reader holds.  A writer needs no help separating him/herself from the topic or the reader; if anything, trying to move closer to the experience with verbs (not to mention nouns and modifiers).  We need not use language to create barriers beyond those built into the structure of language.


Similarly, some use passive voice to avoid claiming positions, and auxiliary verbs to intentionally weaken the stance one assumes in positioning oneself.  The racism example above does this: racism is, and its victims are affected, rather than anyone having established it or acted to perpetuate it.  One can acknowledge a problem without pointing fingers, or make a suggestion without putting oneself in a position for retaliatory comment.

We now live in a sociohistorical moment in which this fails utterly.  Any fool can post his or her thoughts for the world to see; many might argue I am doing so with the words you are now reading.  Moreover, weaseling out of a direct stance does nothing to dissuade those who agree with the stance you can be interpreted to be taking from lending vocal support, nor those who disagree from lambasting in rebuttal.  Better to dive in and build clear thoughts, and clarify positions with stronger language.  Amateur pundits will attack what you write and what you don't.  In such a world, most writers will feel better facing real disagreement than personal attacks having nothing to do with what you've written or even thought.


Writing that attempts to remain above the fray ultimately fails to engage not only the topic, but the reader as well.  The best prose burrows into a topic, lives in it, drives through it.  Language already exists separate from its subject.  Trying to hold it away, to speak through a disembodied voice that dances around a topic, only pushes the writing further away.  Strong verbs push language and concept together, forcing the writer to engage.  And if the writer fails to engage, s/he can never expect the reader to do otherwise.