We are drawn to the work of our favorite authors because we like their voice and writing style. The unique, recognizable way they choose words and assemble them into sentences appeals to us, although we don’t consciously think of it that way.
In Monday’s post, Narrative Voice, an Author’s Style, I mentioned three components of an author’s voice:
- How the habitual choice of words shapes the tone of our writing.
- How the chronic use and misuse of grammar and punctuation shape the pacing of our sentences.
- How our deeply held beliefs and attitudes emerge and shape character and plot arcs.
Today’s post focuses on word choice. What do you want to convey with your prose? This is where the choice and placement of words come into play. Active prose is constructed of nouns followed by verbs or verbs followed by nouns.
Where we choose to place the verbs changes their impact but not their meaning. Also, the words we surround verbs with change the mood but not their intention.
But let’s look at how modifiers and infinitives fit into the written universe and visualize their place in our prose.
- Modifiers are words that alter their sentences’ meanings. They add details and clarify facts, distinguishing between people, events, or objects.
- Infinitives are mushy words, words with no definite beginning or end.
Both modifiers and infinitives are useful, and both have the power to strengthen or weaken our prose.
When doing revisions, I look at how I have placed my verbs in relation to nouns, modifiers, and infinitives in the first draft. My outline told me what the scene should detail but the words were written the way they fell out of my head.
Which tends to be in a passive voice.
The second draft revisions are where I do the real writing. It involves finetuning the plot arc, character arcs, and most importantly, adjusting phrasing.
The tricky part is catching all the weak phrasing. Those of you who write a clean first draft are rare and wonderful treasures – I wish I had that talent.
When I find a stretch of passive phrasing, I reimagine the scene. I want to see how to strengthen the narrative and still keep to my original intention.
At times, nothing will work, and the scene must be scrapped.
A passive sentence is not “wrong.” No matter how active the phrasing, a poorly written sentence is not “better.”
Too many passive sentences slow the pacing, and readers don’t like that – but they do like a chance to breathe and absorb what just happened. So we mingle active and passive phrasing to keep things balanced.
And despite what the self-proclaimed gurus on Reddit might rant, good writing is about balance.
The ways we combine active and passive phrasing are part of our signature, our voice. By mixing the two, we choose areas of emphasis and places in the narrative we want to direct the reader’s attention.
Some types of narratives should feel highly charged and action-packed. Most of your sentences should be constructed with the verbs forward if you write in genres such as sci-fi, political thrillers, and crime thrillers.
These books seek to immerse the reader in the emotion generated by the action, so most sentences should lead off with noun – verb or verb – noun, followed by modifiers and infinitives. You will have more active phrasing than passive: push, push, glide. The reader will adjust to the pacing rhythm you establish if you are consistent.
In other genres, like cozy mysteries, you want to immerse the reader in the character’s emotions. You create a sense of comfort and familiarity by manipulating the mood. Perhaps you want to slightly separate the reader from the action to convey a sense of safety, of being an interested observer.
You want the reader to feel like they are the detective with an objective eye, yet you want them immersed in the romance of it. You balance the active and passive sentence construction, so the narrative is slightly more relaxed than a thriller.
Passive construction can still be strong despite being poetic. A poor choice of words makes a sentence weak.
Has someone said your work is too wordy? An excess of modifiers could be the offenders.
What clues should you look for when trying to see why someone says you are too wordy?
- Look for the many forms of the phrasal verb to be. They are words that easily connect to other words and lead to writing long convoluted passages.
- Look for connecting modifiers (still, however, again, etc.).
The many forms of to be (is, are, was, were) are easy to overlook in revisions because we habitually use them in conversation. They’re kryptonite in the prose of an action-based narrative.
In the first draft, I keep in mind that bald writing tells only part of the story. Regardless of my efforts, it slips in. This is because I am telling myself the story at that stage of development.
When revising the first draft, I sharpen my prose. I try to paint active word pictures of the mental images I visualized when I first wrote them, but without going overboard. I change the wording to use words that begin with hard consonants. They sound tougher and carry more power.
We all approach creativity differently, and what works for me might not work for you. However, the more you write, the more you will find your preferences and writing style changing in one direction or another.
One more thing about wordiness: the number of conjunctions and connecting modifiers we use contributes to wordiness and sentence length. My first drafts are littered with run-on sentences—me telling myself the story. I look for them when making revisions because long compound sentences can be confusing.
It’s a struggle. I rewrite some sections several times before I finally make them palatable.
If you are interested in a bit of homework, take a short paragraph from your work in progress and rewrite it. Try to convey that thought in both passive and active voice. Then blend the two. You might learn something about how you think as a writer when you try to write in an unfamiliar style.
I have posted the following list of words before. I habitually use these morsels of madness in a first draft but wish I didn’t.
It takes forever, but I look at each instance and decide if they should remain or if they weaken the sentence. Ninety times out of a hundred, I change or remove them.
In the interests of keeping the post down to a reasonable length, this list is a picture. If you want to copy it, right-click on it, select “save as,” and choose either .jpeg or .png.