3 Fundamental Writing Techniques You Have to Master
Active voice, weeding out adverbs, and practicing “Show, don’t tell”
Good writers can be made, maybe even great ones. Extraordinary? Probably not. Hemingway, Angelou, Steinbeck, and (insert era-defining author here), probably came out of the womb with something the rest of us don’t have.
Fortunately, there’s plenty of writing to go around for the rest of us. We may not have the next Pulitzer-winning novel in us, but there’s a whole lot of writing yet to be done, a whole lot of words that have never been put together in quite the way that we’re going to put them together. A whole lot of stories so far untold.
Three fundamentals can help turn ordinary writing into good writing, and good writing into great writing:
- Use the active voice. The passive voice should be avoided. See what I did there?
- Limit adverbs.
- Show, don’t tell.
Full disclosure, I didn’t invent these. But I have put my own twist on them.
Stephen King’s superb book, On Writing, outlines two of these principles (active voice and adverbs) and touches on the other.
I’ll give Professor Cunningham, my college creative writing teacher, credit for the third principle (show, don’t tell), although I’ve seen this advice plenty of other places. Professor Cunningham had a way of making the advice stick. More on this below. As far as I know, Mr. Cunningham doesn’t have a book I could try to sell you (it wasn’t exactly an Ivy League school — although there were plenty of places on campus where you could get into poison ivy!).
The Hemingway app catches two of the three principles, passive voice and adverbs, although it’s not foolproof.
Grammarly catches one of the three, passive voice, and it may be better at flagging it. It even suggests how to make it active.
I haven’t found a piece of software or app yet that will admonish you to show rather than tell. Maybe copy editors really are safe from the robots coming to take all of our jobs!
Active (vs. Passive) Voice
Active writing is clear, concise, and straightforward. It’s easy to read. It connects with the reader. It’s confident and emotional.
Passive voice, meanwhile, is a cop-out. A suggestion. An “if it wouldn’t trouble you too greatly, I’d certainly appreciate you reading this. Or perhaps just a skim?”
Active voice busts through the saloon door and knocks out Blackhat Bart with one fist while downing a shot of whiskey with the other.
Passive voice enters quietly, hoping to stay out of Bart’s field of vision, and politely requests a Chardonnay.
Here’s how Grammarly defines the differences between active and passive voice:
In a clause written in the active voice, the subject of the clause performs the action. (I saw Mom.) In a clause written in the passive voice, the action is performed upon the subject of the clause. (Mom was seen by me.)
- The baseball shattered the kitchen window. (Active)
- The kitchen window was shattered by the baseball. (Passive)
- The Ferrari’s driver sped through the red stoplight. (Active)
- The red stoplight was ignored by the Ferrari’s driver. (Passive)
The passive voice isn’t always a mistake, but in the examples above, it would be. In general, the subject of the clause gets the emphasis. The baseball and Ferrari driver deserve the emphasis, as they’re the ones doing the doing. There’s no reason to emphasize the kitchen window or red stoplight. Unless, perhaps, the kitchen window or red stoplight is the central element of the story. But if that’s the case, you might have bigger issues than using the passive voice!
I love Kris Gage’s writing. I’m not the only one: She has 79,000 followers on Medium. I attempted a backflip when I hit 2,000 followers. (Sidebar: It didn’t end well.) Check out her “enough with the self-help BS” article linked below. I can’t find any instances of passive voice and neither can the Hemingway app. Can you?
Check out this passage from near the end of the post:
Companies started going into business selling goods, and in order to sell more, they needed to convince us we needed them. In order to convince us we needed, they needed to convince us we [were] inadequate without.
Kris didn’t invent this idea. But she invented the straightforward, clear, active combination of words she uses to express it. Imagine this same concept in the hands of a lesser writer:
We’ve been convinced by big corporations that we need goods. In order to find ourselves here, we’ve allowed ourselves to be convinced that we’re inadequate.
Read those words out loud. Can you hear the difference? Gage isn’t just easier to read, more dynamic, more understandable — the message itself is subtly different. In Gage’s passage, the companies are the actors. Companies are doing the doing. Evil companies. It’s their fault.
In the second passage, we’re allowing companies to do this to us. What the hell is wrong with us? How can we let them get away with that? It’s our fault. See the difference?
Meanwhile, check out the following post on the same general topic. It’s good, but it could be great. It’s complex where it doesn’t need to be. It’s passive where active works so much better. See if you can spot instances of passive voice.
Note — while there is a name on the byline, this was posted under a business account (Lululemon) that hasn’t posted in almost three years, so I don’t feel too terrible about using it as a not-so-great example.
Reading Self-Help Books Helped Me Understand There’s A Time to Stop Reading Self-Help Books
Here’s an instance of passive voice I found:
Eventually, I became exhausted of this way of being and unsatisfied with the results. I became drawn to books about living to your potential, knowing who you are, massage, yoga, telepathy, intuition — anything that seemed off the grid at the time, but so on the grid of coming back to me.
It’s not bad. The words flow together nicely. It’s understandable, mostly. I can’t figure out what but so on the grid of coming back to me means, and every time I read it again it gets fuzzier.
It isn’t bad, but it isn’t powerful.
Contrast that with Kris Gage’s expression of a similar concept:
And even as I swore off “bullshit business books” I kept pounding self-improvement ones, repackaged in ways that won’t embarrass you on the subway (not that I ride on) or the airplane (which I often do); re-marketing the same messages but wrapping it up as “biographies.” They know what you [are] doing with those. You’re pretending you can lift some lessons, become more like these people by reading a couple thousand word-summary of their whole lives.
Where the previous passage is a love tap, Gage’s paragraph is a sucker punch to the gut. It’s more emotional. More powerful. More memorable. Three months from now, which passage will stick with you?
To be fair, we shouldn’t strictly forbid the passive voice. But we should be aware of its impact when we use it. It shifts the focus of the sentence from the actor, the person or thing doing the doing, to the acted upon. In limited cases, this is appropriate.
The bottom line is this: The passive voice should be used sparingly.
Or rather: Use the passive voice sparingly, dammit!
Note that the advice here isn’t to “eliminate adverbs,” it’s to “limit” them. In certain circumstances, adverbs can add texture and beauty to prose that takes it to the next level. A perfectly placed adverb can enhance clarity, adding a layer of complexity to a piece with just one word. Consider the following passage from E.B. White’s Once More to the Lake (adverbs in bold):
We stared silently at the tips of our rods, at the dragonflies that came and went. I lowered the tip of mine into the water, tentatively, pensively dislodging the fly, which darted two feet away, poised, darted two feet back, and came to rest again a little farther up the rod.
Now read it again, this time with the adverbs removed:
We stared at the tips of our rods, at the dragonflies that came and went. I lowered the tip of mine into the water, dislodging the fly, which darted two feet away, poised, darted two feet back, and came to rest again a little farther up the rod.
Notice the difference? Three words — silently, tentatively, and pensively — add richness and texture to the first passage, so much so that the purpose of the paragraph itself seems to change. With the adverbs, it’s about the inner reflection of the main character. Without them, it’s about the movement of the dragonfly. All of that from three adverbs.
So adverbs can work. They can add beauty, texture, and richness. Most of the time, however, they add confusion, lack of clarity, and awkwardness. Consider the following passage, taken from a piece published on Medium:
When I hit rock bottom a few years ago, I gave myself two choices.
(1) Continue living at home with my parents (who would eventually kick me out) with a substance abuse problem, no job, and daily panic attacks.
(2) Take responsibility for myself and crawl out of this hole I’d dug.
When I look at those options now, the answer is clear. But in [the] depths of that hole, I only reluctantly chose the second option.
This is a good, well-written, thoughtful post about how people closest to us will often resist our efforts to change, even when it’s for the better. But check out what the adverb “reluctantly” is doing in this passage. It’s distracting. It leaves us wondering what the piece is about. Why did he reluctantly choose? In the back of our mind, we’re questioning the point of the piece, and this is never resolved. We’re left unsure about the theme, and this is never a good thing. We’ll move on to the next story in our feed — there’s simply too much good writing out there to spend our precious reading time on a piece that doesn’t seem to know exactly what it’s about.
Further down in the same article: This is one of the surprisingly counterintuitive ideas that I discovered on this path. The adverb “surprisingly” is a wasted word, and can only serve to confuse and distract us. “Counterintuitive” means unexpected. “Surprisingly” means unexpected. So if something is unexpectedly unexpected, does that make it expected? Is there some sort of double-negative effect happening here? Twists my brain like a pretzel. And while I’m trying to figure this out, I’m not paying attention to what I’m reading next, if I’m still reading at all.
Adverbs are often examples of over-writing — giving in to the temptation to thoroughly explain, rather than allow readers to feel the feelings for themselves. Here’s a passage from a writing partner’s book-in-progress:
It was like waking up from a really good dream. The details so close at hand, but no matter how hard you try to clear your mind and salvage the memory, you know it is sadly gone forever.
See how “sadly” does too much here? “You know it is gone forever” works so much better. Let your readers feel the emotion for themselves — if the writing is good enough (and this particular writer’s writing is plenty good enough), they will.
Finally, check out this passage from John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. I’ve added a few unnecessary adverbs of my own in brackets — read it both ways and notice the difference.
The sea gulls come [noisily] flapping in to sit on the cannery roofs to await the day of refuse. They sit [patiently] on the roof peaks shoulder to shoulder. From the rocks near the Hopkins Marine Station comes the barking of sea lions like the baying of hounds. The air is cool and fresh. In the back gardens the gophers [eagerly] push up the morning mounds of fresh damp earth and they creep out [stealthily] and drag flowers into their holes. Very few people are about, just enough to make it seem more deserted than it is.
Brilliant, beautiful writing. Nearly ruined by four adverbs. By the way, did I need to use “nearly” there? Yes, I think so. Steinbeck is so good, even a hack like me can’t completely ruin it.
Show, Don’t Tell
Professor Cunningham had just handed back our short stories. I turned immediately to the last page, where he always scrawled our grade along with a few notes. B-. Creative Writing was an elective and I was pretty sure a B- was about the lowest grade possible, as long as you turned something in. In red ink, next to the grade, was written “Way too much telling. SHOW your readers. Let them figure it out.”
The story was about my teenage obsession with Mrs. Davis, the sultry mid-30’s vixen that lived across the street from my boyhood home. Halfway through, Professor Cunningham had used his red pen to put a big X through an entire paragraph:
I was infatuated with her, unable to stop thinking about her. She was everything I dreamed a woman should be, and thoughts and fantasies about her filled my days. (This continues for a few more sentences. I’ll spare you.)
Next to his big red X, Professor Cunningham had written, “Stop TELLING and SHOW US. What does the main character DO? Does he think about her while he’s masturbating?”
I still blush…but the lesson stuck.
Don’t tell your readers everything, don’t overexplain, don’t interpret for them. Show them and let them figure things out for themselves.
Now check out this superb example of SHOWING, from Ernest Hemingway’s introductory paragraph to The Sun Also Rises:
[Robert Cohn] was Spider Kelly’s star pupil. Spider Kelly taught all his young gentlemen to box like featherweights, no matter whether they weighed one hundred and five or two hundred and five pounds. But it seemed to fit Cohn. He was really very fast. He was so good that Spider promptly overmatched him and got his nose permanently flattened. This increased Cohn’s distaste for boxing, but it gave him a certain satisfaction of some strange sort, and it certainly improved his nose. In his last year at Princeton he read too much and took to wearing spectacles. I never met any one of his class who remembered him. They did not even remember that he was middleweight boxing champion.
Consider what Hemingway shows us, respecting us enough to let us figure these things out for ourselves.
- Robert Cohn didn’t really like boxing, but had some natural talent for it.
- He was rather unattractive.
- He was not memorable in any way.
Here’s my TELL version:
Although Robert Cohn had some natural talent for boxing, he never really cared much for it. He wasn’t just rather unattractive, he was more or less unmemorable in every way.
Which passage engages you?
Don’t tell us Robert Cohn is unmemorable, show us with action and behavior. “I never met any one of his class who remembered him. They did not even remember that he was middleweight boxing champion”. Brilliant.
These tips won’t turn us all into Hemingways. But they can help make “meh” writing a bit less “meh”.
Tools like Grammarly and Hemingway App are good, but they aren’t perfect. They’re a start — running your drafts through them as a first step will certainly help. After that, go back through your draft three times, screening for one of these fundamentals on each edit — use active voice, limit adverbs, and show, don’t tell.
You’ll make your posts more active and more engaging, convincing readers to scroll all the way through to the end.