Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Lessons from Elements of Style - Part 3

It’s time for part three in the Elements of Style series!  If this is your first time here, here’s Part 1 and Part 2.

Picture of Colorado Snow

This one, I think, goes hand in hand with the previous one.  Mostly because there is some confusion about passive voice and there are some misconceptions concerning what passive voice is.  But I think it’s because these two rules are so similar.  When a person uses a helping verb (eg had) it doesn’t mean that the phrase is passive.  It just means its non-committal.

Here’s some examples of noncommittal phrases:

John began to sit down.
John was thinking about ice cream.
John almost ate the ice cream.

All of these sentences don’t quite commit to anything.  Did he actually sit down or did he just begin to?  Almost?  Why didn’t he?  By choosing stronger verbs and less helping verbs, our writing becomes committed.

John sat down.
John thought about ice cream.
John decided not to eat the ice cream. 

Non-committal language can also be found in the form of using the easy way out.  Now I’m not saying we should use five syllable words whenever we can.  Let’s not overwhelm our readers and force them to go to the dictionary as they’re reading.  But there is a difference between looking and gazing.  There’s a difference between angry and incensed. 

By using stronger words, we’re better able to key in on the real emotion, thought or idea we want to convey.   Here’s an example from my Red WIP where I compare my first paragraph from an earlier draft and the draft I just finished.

Larzo’s tail swished in the air.  Beneath his padded paws, the ground felt hard, and although he kept moving south, he didn’t move as quickly as he had the day before.  There was something different in the air; he could almost taste it on his tongue.  He kept his ears alert while scanning the forest grounds and his whiskers almost quivered with expectation.

Larzo paused and raised his nose into the air. Something seeped into his nostrils, drawing him past the thick trunk of a hemlock. He crept along the ground, scanning the foliage. A new stench mixed in amid the familiar green scent of the shrubs and the bitter bark. Blood, ale and something else he could not immediately place. Garlic?

In the first paragraph, the ground felt hard.  Well, what does that mean?  Feel is one of those noncommittal words.  If it felt hard, it would be better for me to show it by him reacting to it, not just feeling it.  Something.  Something is another noncommittal word.  Something was different?  Different from what?
In the second paragraph, I tried to hone in on what it was he was experiencing and feeling.  Just naming the tree makes me (and I hope the reader) feel more grounded in the surroundings.  Any thoughts?  Does this one pull you in?

This is your writing!  So why not commit?  Get rid of those pesky helping verbs and use strong, colorful words to get the point across!  I’ll work on it if you will!