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The Complete Writer: Good Writing & Abstraction **FREE READ!**

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The Complete Writer
The Ultimate Guide to Writing, Publishing, and Leading the Writer’s Life


Who Is This Book For?

  • Anyone who wants to write articles, books, or blogs at a professional level
  • Business owners who need to create books or blogs for marketing or personal purposes
  • Writers of nonfiction
  • Writers of fiction
  • Book authors deciding whether to self-publish or to seek a traditional publisher
  • Individuals who hope to make a living as freelance writers or independent publishers

When I came up with the idea for The Complete Writer, the plan was to create a book that I could give to my editorial clients at The Copyeditor’s Desk. At the outset, most of my clientele consisted of academics, nonprofits, and small businesses who publish through scholarly or traditional presses. Over time, though, more people have asked me to help prepare books—fiction and nonfiction—for independent publication on Amazon and waypoints.

Many of my new clients secretly dream of making a living at writing. I’ve lived that dream myself, and I can assure you: it’s not wise to quit your day job. For most people it’s not the path to a middle-class lifestyle, especially if you don’t live in one of the big coastal cities that are publishing centers. But if you have a source of independent income that will support you—a job that’s not all-consuming, investments, a working spouse, Social Security—independent writing and publishing can be an interesting and fulfilling enterprise.

Other clients have more salient reasons to launch self-publishing enterprises, ranging from a simple ego boost to marketing strategies for their businesses.

Whatever you crave to do with your writing and publishing dreams, you must be able to write clearly. You need to understand what makes a publishable document, and you need to know how to edit and revise your work to make it publishable. Maybe even more than that, you need to understand that the only person who will market your product is you. This is true whether you write a blog or newspaper and magazine features or books or copy for some other business. I say “other” because all publishing activity is a business.

Over the years, I’ve published in many venues: magazines, newspapers, websites, academic journals, and books. I’ve helped innumerable authors and small businesses perfect websites, journal articles, and books. I’ve published my own and clients’ books through mainline publishers (The Life or Robert Sidney, Earl of Leicester, Folger Shakespeare Library; The Essential Feature, Columbia University Press; Math Magic, with Scott Flansburg, William Morrow),: and out of curiosity, I’ve also self-published a few of my own squibs through Amazon and waypoints, under the Plain & Simple Press imprint (Slave Labor: The New Story of American Higher Education; Fire-Rider, a three-volume saga; and 30 Pounds, Four Months, a diet plan and cookbook for people who love to eat. Using a second imprint, Camptown Races Press, I published a series of adult romances emanated by a group of five writers under the Roberta Stuart pseudonym. And I have operated one of the top 100 personal finance blogs in the English language,[3] plus a few other sites.

The Complete Writer brings twenty-five years of writing, publishing, and academic experience to bear on issues that most concern people who want to be writers:

  • How to write better
  • How to write articles, websites, and books
  • How to write nonfiction
  • How to write fiction
  • What to do about writer’s block
  • Whether to self-publish or to seek a traditional publisher
  • How to prepare a book for publication
  • How to market books
  • How to manage a freelance writing business

Obviously, no book can answer all the questions or solve all the challenges that arise for every writer. But I hope this one will give you some insight into what you can expect if you decide to dive into the writing life, and how to go about it. If you have any specific questions, I invite you to explore Plain & Simple Press or The Copyeditor’s Desk and send them to me through either site’s Contacts page.

—Victoria Hay
Phoenix, Arizona

Back to Contents

§ § §

Section I: Write Right
Writing Tips and Pointers

§ § §

Chapter 1.
The Essence of Good Writing

Clear, coherent writing style works in all professional settings. For professional, publishing writers, it’s required.

The principles described here apply to any kind of writing, fiction or nonfiction, as long as the document is adapted to the audience and its circumstances.

Good writing is clear writing.

Readers in all contexts are thrilled to find copy that is presented clearly, in concise, interesting, easy-to-follow language. This applies across the board, to all kinds of writing. It applies to technical writing, for example, where you may write a manual that explains how a computer program or a technical device works. It applies to business writing, from daily correspondence to the annual report. And it applies in fiction: a revelation made clear by Ernest Hemingway, who applied this style to the short story and the novel.

In business, being able to write clearly and well makes you look good. Even people who aren’t English majors notice confusing or clumsy writing. If you can’t write a simple sentence, they wonder what else you can’t do.

Writing a “simple sentence” (that’s a grammatical term for an utterance that has one subject and one predicate) doesn’t mean writing simple-mindedly. The Wall Street Journal, whose content is anything but simple-minded, is written at an eleventh-grade reading level. It conveys a great deal of sophisticated information in a style that is crisp and uncluttered, but not choppy. The length and structure of its sentences are varied, but every word counts.

To make every word count is to “write tight.” The principles of tight writing are described in brief in William Strunk and E.B. White’s short and famous book, The Elements of Style. You should read it and come to know it well. If you plan on a career that requires a lot of writing—or if you’d just like to write for the fun of it—you should memorize this book. In particular, check out “Rule 17,” which says:

A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all details and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Strunk and White wrote at a time when we didn’t worry about gender-based pronouns, and when people learned a great deal more about how language works than many of us encounter in school today. So, in case some of their discussions seem mysterious, let’s review a few methods that will help you accomplish what they advise.

Mechanical tricks to help keep it short

Certain devices, although no substitute for thoughtful composition, can help. Keep these hints in mind.

Cut adverbs and adjectives.

The words very, quite, a little, a lot, a bit, somewhat, rather, and really can usually go. So can many—perhaps even most—words ending in -ly. Ask yourself if you need that adverb, or if you can find a verb that carries the meaning of two words.

For example, what does “talk very fast” mean? Without even thinking about it, we can list a half-dozen single words that may mean that: chatter, jabber, babble, blurt, prattle, chit-chat, gab. A little thought will certainly lead to more and maybe better terms. Notice that each verb adds meaning and vividness to the idea of fast talk—they all have slightly different senses. The strong verb, when preferred to a weaker verb plus an adverb or two, gives strength and meaning to your language.

Watch for wordy habits.

I nearly said, “Keep your eye out for. . . .” These verbose constructions are everywhere, and we can always find one or two words to take their place:

  • has the capability to (can)
  • is capable of (can)
  • is able to (can)
  • can be compared to (resembles)
  • are forced to (must)
  • is a product of Japan (comes from Japan)

Look for the hidden verb.

Some verbosities are long constructions hiding a verb that, when uncovered, can be made to pull the sentence’s weight. For example:

  • she has a great influence on (influences)
    she has a lack of (lacks)
  • I am of the opinion that
    I think
  • they carried out a review of
    they reviewed
  • please make payment of the amount
    please pay the amount
  • we should make an adjustment in
    we should adjust
  • they made an announcement
    they announced

Beware the “there is/there are” construction.

This idiom is a blot upon our language, because it is so universally overused. Consider, for example, the following:

  • There has been an increasing number of court cases
    about. . . .

If you take the thing that “there has been” (in this case, number) and make it the subject of the sentence, and then come up with a verb that has some meaning, such as concern, you create a decent sentence that gets straight to the point:

  • An increasing number of court cases concern. . . .

Delete relative pronouns, where possible.

Sometimes you can delete certain subordinators, such as that, who, and which, creating tighter phrasing:

  • the foods that people eat. . . .
    the foods people eat. . . .
  • Sgt. Preston, who is a Vietnam veteran, said. . . .
    Sgt. Preston, a Vietnam veteran, said. . . .
  • The canyon, which is a wildlife sanctuary, runs north and south.
    The canyon, a wildlife sanctuary, runs north and south.

Get rid of as many prepositional phrases as you can.

You can often replace prepositional phrases with possessives (my aunt’s pen, not the pen of my aunt) or with noun phrases (a coffee cup, not a cup for coffee):

  • The laughter of children
    Children’s laughter
  • A spokeswoman for Honeywell
    A Honeywell spokeswoman

But be careful not to get tangled up in noun phrases: A phrase like “victims of violent crime” ceases to make sense when it’s put as “violent crime victims.”

Techniques of economical composition and style

Some devices require a little more thought than the knee-jerk mechanical tricks we’ve just reviewed. These are compositional principles that you should internalize as you internalize the spelling of your own name.

Before we proceed to the first trick, let’s make a side trip to visit our friend Joe, a fellow who likes to hike in the mountains. Being a kind of a cowboyish dude, he likes to take his blunderbuss for a walk, too. So one bright day Joe is way out in the sticks when he hears a rustling in the brush.

What should come bounding out of the chaparral but a gigantic, angry bear! Joe, calling upon his nerves of steel, grabs his long gun and blows the bear away!

Now he’s feeling pretty pleased with himself, pounding his chest and hollering, “Kreegah! Joe Bundolo!” and contemplating how he’s going to get the thee-hundred-pound trophy five miles down the trail to his pick-up.

Pretty quick he hears another rustling in the bush. No fool, he slides the gun under the shrubbery and stands there looking innocent, for now what should come striding out of the shrubbery but the game warden.

Joe, being a cheapskate, would never think of buying a hunting license, but that wouldn’t matter, because it’s out of bear season, anyway.

“Goodness gracious!” the warden exclaims. “What happened here?”

“Officer,” Joe says, “this bear was shot.” Joe, a career bureaucrat, is a past master of passing the buck.

We, being tree-huggers, happen to have been hiding in the jojoba bushes. Outraged, we now leap out and holler, “Officer, this bear was shot by Joe!

Okay. Now we have some action, and in the course of describing it we’ve disobeyed a cardinal rule of tight writing not once, but twice:

Avoid the passive voice.

Verbs are words that express action. They come in two voices, “active” and “passive.”

In the active voice, the action moves directly from the subject to the object of the action (the thing that is receiving the action). In our examples, we’ll make subjects bold-face, verbs boldface italic, and (when they exist) objects plain italic:

Joe shot the bear.

Notice that the receiver of the action here appears as the object of the verb, and the thing that is doing the action is the verb’s subject. The active voice is straight and direct. It doesn’t beat around the bush, and it doesn’t waste words. It is economical, and that is why we prefer it.

In the passive voice, the action moves in the opposite direction: the thing that receives the action suddenly appears as the verb’s subject, and the doer of the action is hidden in a prepositional phrase starting with “by,” which may or may not be explicitly stated.

The bear was shot [by Joe].

When Joe says “the bear was shot,” he passes the buck. Anyone could have shot the bear. Surely not Joe, eh?

Because the passive voice always contains a past participle (a verbal that looks like it’s in the past tense, such as “shot”), many writers confuse it with the past tense. Remember, the way to tell whether a verb is in the passive voice is asking whether you can say the action was done by someone or something. If the phrase by zombies” makes sense, then the verb is in the passive voice.

In most circumstances, the passive voice is indirect and verbose— that’s why it’s a classic feature of bureaucratese. Fix it by converting it to the active voice, unless you’re using the passive voice for a specific reason. Take the doer of the action and make that the subject of the sentence.

  • Passive: Mistakes were made.
    Active: We made mistakes.
  • Passive: Money was spent on unnecessary travel.
    Active: Management spent money on unnecessary travel.
  • Passive: The bear was shot.
    Active: Joe shot the bear.

Now I’m going to tell you something that you’re not supposed to know: there are times when the passive voice is a good thing. Not many, but they do exist. One legitimate reason to use the passive voice, obviously, is to pass the buck. Sometimes you want to obfuscate. The passive voice is a formidable tool for that purpose.

But sometimes you can use the passive voice to do exactly the opposite. When we leap out of the brush and say to the game warden, “That bear was shot by Joe,” we point the finger at Joe and emphasize his agency in the crime.

This happens because in English, the most emphatic position is at the end of an utterance or a paragraph or a story. Because of that, when you put the “by _____” part of the passive voice into words, you lay the stress on the doer of the action. And sometimes, as in the episode with Joe, that’s exactly what you want to do.

But most of the time: not so much. Use the passive voice when you know what you’re doing. Otherwise, prefer the active to the passive.

Use verbs conveying action, not verbs of being.

These are the verbs of being:

am is are was were be being been

They’re perfectly fine words, and you can’t get around using them now and again. But they lack punch. Good writers make their verbs carry the weight of their sentences— and a verb of being doesn’t carry much weight. Instead of having the subject of a sentence just “be,” have it “do.”

Here’s a sentence by a real journalist:

Energetic and stimulating, Rios is a favorite among students.

It conveys a little meaning, but overall, it’s a big Z, dull as white rice. What on earth does “stimulating” mean, anyway? And that fellow Rios is buried in the middle of the sentence.

We could rewrite it:

Students love the energetic and stimulating Rios.

A little better—though insipid. The word “love” sounds lame: it’s one of those words that have lost meaning from overuse. And the sentence still doesn’t show Rios in action; it doesn’t show how the words “energetic” and “stimulating” define him.

My edited version of this—and I was perhaps guilty of going after our scribe with a heavy hand—read like this when it finally went to print:

Rios projects a sense of excitement and energy that charms his students.

Does it improve on the original? Maybe so; maybe not. As you can see, though, an insipid sentence inspires an insipid response in the reader, something you decidedly do not want to inspire.

Write in complete sentences . Most of the time.

A complete sentence has a subject and a verb. It will not harm your style or bore your reader if you include a subject and a verb in every sentence.

Beginning writers seem to think it’s arty to cast their thoughts in fragments. Maybe they think it sounds dramatic.

In fact, though, sentence fragments have a function: fragments are like exclamation points. They’re emphatic. Too many exclamation points make your copy sound like you’re panting. Good writers use sentence fragments in the same way the use exclamation points: sparingly. To pepper a piece of writing with a lot of fragments or exclamation points is bad style.

Use Anglo-Saxon instead of Latinate words.

Prefer the short word to the long one. Some folks apparently believe that the more syllables a word has, the more important it sounds. Not so. Think about the most common mouth-fillers, and consider their plain-English alternatives:

  • numerous (many)
  • donation (gift)
  • illustrate (show)
  • accountability (duty)
  • merchandise (stock)
  • acquiesce (agree)
  • communicate (say)
  • conference (meeting)
  • indicate (say, imply)
  • knowledgeable (trained)
  • optimal (best)
  • restructure (change)
  • institute (start)

This is what happens when you lard your language with important-sounding, Latinate words:

Members of the species homo sapiens who maintain an abode within a permanent or semipermanent structure composed at least partially or wholly of vitreous, transparent material would find it sagacious to refrain from hurling projectiles of natural material.

Figured out what this means yet?

People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

Cut the jargon.

Of AIDS, a high-ranking bureaucrat once said, “The disease has heterosexualized, proletarianized, and ruralized.” So has the plague of gobbledygook.

Jargon is mishmash language. It obscures meaning while it implies that the speaker is an insider. Don’t confuse this term with “shop talk.” Some terms that are current in specific trades and industries have real meaning and need not be translated into verbose alternatives. Doctors and nurses, for example, know what an “EMT” is, and they know what has happened when someone has administered CPR. No—we’re talking about phony shop talk, fake insider language, ersatz sophistication.

You can learn to recognize jargon, which, like computer viruses, evolves constantly. For example, suspect any word that ends in -ize or -ate:

  • capacitize
  • prioritize
  • collateralize
  • administrate
  • orchestrate
  • facilitate
  • . . .even concertize!

Nouns and adjectives usually convert to jargon when they surface as brand-new verbs. Thus, the word “conference” becomes jargon when it’s used as a verb: “They conferenced about the computer program.” We’ve all heard these words several times too often:

  • to parent
  • to office
  • to network
  • to obsolete
  • to impact

Some jargon slithers into the language from baleful sources like admanese, educationese, political doublethink, and shop talk. They buzz interestingly but don’t mean much:

  • upscale
  • downscale
  • fast track
  • dog and pony show
  • hands-on
  • world class
  • downside
  • meaningful dialogue
  • revolution (as in “a marketing revolution”)
  • experience (as in “a dining experience”)

The word “multiple”—meaning “many” or “more than one”—one day cropped up as suddenly as chicken pox on a six-year-old’s belly. There is nothing wrong with the word “many.” And “more than one” is far preferable to the mumbly “multiple.”

To impact is similarly vile. Teeth are impacted. People, politics, the history of humanity, the future of the universe are affected, changed, damaged, improved, transformed, exploded, crushed, or whatever it is that you think you mean.

Avoid clichés like the plague. . .

Clichés are aging quips that have worn thin with overuse. You can usually tell if a golden phrase is hackneyed by saying the first few words aloud. If the last few follow automatically, you’ve got a cliché.

  • Raining cats and . . . .
  • Filled to the . . . .
  • Fit as a . . . .
  • Sell like. . . .

Use specific terms, not mush words.

Everyday language is awash in words devoid of solid meaning—such as “area” and “field.” That’s not my area; he’s an expert in the field. What do these things mean? Discipline? Concern? Meadow? Say what you mean!

Watch out for words like thing, idea, situation, experience, and group, the latter of which may mean anything from the Boy Scouts to a witches’ coven.

Use the right word.

Some words sound as though they mean something other than what they do mean.

  • fortuitous does not mean fortunate
  • appraised is not apprised
  • revenge is not to avenge
  • award is not to reward
  • verbal is not quite the same as oral

Shun euphemisms.

Euphemism is prettified speech that supposedly softens blunt reality (“she passed away”) or replaces frank words with allegedly acceptable language (“little girls’ room”).

Don’t be crude, but don’t be nicey-nice, either. A task force is a committee, a recreation facility is a gym, and an environmental engineer in education is a school janitor.

Cut redundancies.

Any unnecessary word is redundant. In the patter of every day speech, we repeat ourselves all the time. For example:

  • hot water heater (if the water’s hot, why do you need a heater?)
  • close proximity (= “close closeness”!)
  • one and only (if there’s one, it is only)
  • more and more (and on and on?)
  • single most (cf. one and only)
  • free gift (admanese: if it’s a gift, it is free)
  • sworn affidavit (affidavits by their nature are sworn)
  • completely surrounded (if you’re partly surrounded, then you’re…well…not surrounded)
  • future plans (as opposed to past plans?)
  • return again (“re” means “again”)
  • completely unable (much like completely pregnant…)

This may be O.K. when you’re talking, but don’t do it in writing. You can edit the written word—and you should.

Sometimes writers indulge in larger kinds of redundancy. We may accidentally repeat a phrase, sentence, or paragraph that appeared earlier in the document. Or we may have been taught a particularly pernicious method of composition, the “Tell them what you’re going to say; say it; and tell them what you said” approach. This is plain bad writing—don’t do it. In writing (as opposed to public speaking), you need say it just once.

Avoid portmanteau sentences.

This term was coined by James Kilpatrick, after Lewis Carroll. It compares an overburdened sentence to a stuffed suitcase. Consider, for example, this astonishing example from Editor & Publisher, the trade journal of the newspaper industry—and ironically, a repository of bad writing:

Achorn suggested that women set the ground rules early and stick to them, not underestimate themselves or set their goals too low, be prepared for a certain amount of loneliness as they get to the top (it goes with the job), not carry a chip on their shoulders, take advantage of every educational and training opportunity, make sure their company has a sound policy against sexual harassment, not assume all women working with them are for them, be optimistic and not expect the workplace to solve all the problems and change cultural attitudes that have built up over the centuries.

Amazing. There was no need to recite every hackneyed aphorism the speaker uttered. But even if the advice were not trite, the sentence would still be overstuffed.

Use correct punctuation.

It’s does not mean its, and there’s no such thing as its’. Sentences slopped together with a comma instead of a conjunction or a semicolon just look . . . well, sloppy.

Learn the difference between the plural and the possessive, and distinguish between the plural possessive and the singular possessive. Know what a comma splice is and how to avoid it. You can learn these things. It’s easy to find grammar and style guides online, or just visit any community college or university bookstore and pick up a freshman comp text.


Remember to run the spellchecker as the second-to-last step in revising your work. But after that, always proofread with the brain! We’re still smarter than our computers.

Back to Contents

§ § §

Chapter 2.
Show, Don’t Tell: The Abstraction Ladder

Effective writing is concrete writing. Concrete writing is specific. You’ve probably heard this in many variations; the most common is “show, don’t tell.”

Teachers, writing coaches, and editors say this over and over because it’s one of the hardest tricks for writers to master. It’s so easy to say, for example, “the beautiful sunset” or “the attractive woman.” And it’s easy to lapse into jargon: “we maximized the data.”

But what do these things mean? When someone says he saw a pretty woman riding the light rail, can you picture the lady? Probably only in your own terms—that is, in terms of what you personally think makes for a good-looking woman. What does a “beautiful sunset” look like? Is it cloudy? Clear? Red? Orange? Yellow? Blue? Green? How long does this sunset last, anyway? “It’s a nice day”—personally, I’ve been known to say a 100-degree day was “nice”; my buddy from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula thinks it’s “nice” when snow is falling.

The trouble with these vague terms is that they are high on the abstraction ladder.

A linguist named S.I. Hayakawa, some years ago, came up with a way of thinking about abstract and concrete language. He pictured a ladder on which a speaker moves up and down between relatively concrete or specific terms and abstract words.

To understand his vision, take a look at this:

This is Jake.

Well, no. Actually, this picture of Jake is in itself an abstraction. You understand: It’s not Jake! It’s a representation of Jake.

Like pictures, all words are representations. That is, any word is necessarily an abstraction. The interesting thing about words is that they display degrees of abstraction, just as an abstract painting might portray Jake in more or less jumbled ways.

So, try to imagine the real thing: These days, he’s no longer a cute little puppy. He’s large; he has long shiny blond hair that sheds all over everything. He’s very friendly and happy. He stinks—he has a superb doggy aroma. He drools. He occasionally barks. He attempts to talk to humans with a strange ooking noise. And he is, all in all, very concrete. File this dog away in your mind for a minute.

Now, to get back to the subject: Hayakawa posited that all language is abstract. That is, a word is necessarily not the thing that it represents. All words in all languages are necessarily abstractions—they’re just representations of the real object. The word table or mesa is not the same as a physical wooden contraption to hold dishes and homework.

Thus. . .

This is not a rose…

And this is not a rose:


Intuitively, we sense that some words are somehow closer to the object than others—that is, some words evoke a more specific image of the object than others. For example, “rose” is more specific—less abstract—than “flower” or “bush.”

Hayakawa thought of picturing these levels of abstraction by ranging words along an imaginary ladder, which he called “The Abstraction Ladder.”

Such a ladder might look like this, with its feet on the ground and its most abstract rung somewhere out there where no one has gone before.

So, QUICK: what’s the most concrete term you can think of for this critter?

About 80 percent of us automatically say “dog.” But in fact, that doesn’t say much about the occupant of our photo.

For most people, “dog” means their dog, and the picture the word conjures in their minds may be of a poodle or a cocker spaniel or a shih-tzu or a Heinz-57. Chances are, the word “dog” won’t make your reader think of anything that looks much like Jake.

Between us—because we share some very specific information—the word that will conjure up that dog is “Jake.” So, if we were to draw a ladder along which we would range all the words that indicate what’s in our picture from least to most abstract, the word “Jake” would appear on the bottom rung.

Consider, then, the words that are more abstract than “Jake” but less abstract than “dog”: we can imagine quite a few. Jake is a golden retriever, which is a variety of hunting dog, which is a variety of working dog, and so forth:


For writers, it’s another way of saying show, don’t tell. Or, as all your teachers, readers, and editors will nag you, be specific.

To create clarity in your writing—that is, to make the window of your writing spot-free—you need to come down the abstraction ladder.

Good writers move up and down the abstraction ladder. They clarify abstract concepts and terms by providing concrete, clearly described examples and by giving readers anecdotes that show how the abstract applies to real life.

For example, once I went up Mt. Graham with a Forest Service biologist who was an expert on the endangered Mt. Graham red squirrel. My friend was writing a story on the same, and she — the biologist — was driving us up through several life zones when all of a sudden a mountain lion jumped onto the road ahead of us. Then it disappeared into the forest. What kind of forest do you picture?

Does your forest look like this?

Maybe it looks like this…

This is my kinda forest!

The point is, the reader can’t know what kind of landscape the mountain lion was in unless we tell what it looked like . . . by using specific terms.

Mt. Graham rises 7,000 feet, through several distinct life zones—all of which are in the National Forest. It starts with low desert chaparral; the road passes through juniper, oak, and piñon forest, then ponderosa, Douglas fir, then aspen, white fir, and finally blue spruce.

What kind of “forest” did you imagine the mountain lion disappeared into?

It means you need to use concrete, picture nouns—the actual name for something, not just the vague word for it. In placing the reader in a forest, you must say what kind of forest it is—broad-leafed? coniferous? juniper-oak?—and what kind of trees appear—maples? pine? fir? aspen? other? What do they look like? smell like? sound like?

Otherwise, each reader sees his or her personal version of the forest, not the one you’re talking about.

Back to Contents

Verbs: The Passive Voice

logoOne of the things that even my brightest students have the toughest time understanding is the passive voice, and why they should prefer the active voice. For those who want to learn to write effectively, either in a business setting or creatively, the distinction between active and passive voice matters.

And one roadblock to grasping that distinction, I’ve discovered, is that often other instructors don’t know what the passive voice is, and so they teach their students outright errors. There are many misconceptions about this.

Let’s start with the biggest one: THE PASSIVE VOICE IS NOT THE SAME AS THE PAST TENSE! Although the passive voice always uses a past participle, passive can express all the various permutations of past, present, future, subjunctive, and conditional.

Can you add 'by dinosaurs' after the verb? It's passive voice. (Easy way for writers and students to tell active voice and passive voice apart.)Here’s an example of the passive voice:

The trash is collected today.

Here’s an example of the past tense, having to do with trash collection, but set in the active voice:

The dinosaurs collected the trash today.

So let’s compare those in some other tenses:

Passive in the present tense: The trash is collected today.
Active in the present tense: The dinosaurs collect the trash today.

Passive in the past tense: The trash was collected today.
Active in the past tense: The dinosaurs collected the trash today.

Passive in the future tense: The trash will be collected today.
Active in the future tense: The dinosaurs will collect the trash today.

Passive in the past perfect: The trash has been collected today.
Active in the past perfect: The dinosaurs have collected the trash today.

Passive in the past pluperfect: The trash had been collected before I got home.
Active in the past pluperfect: The dinosaurs had collected the trash before I got home.

Passive in the future perfect: The trash will have been collected this morning.
Active in the future perfect: The dinosaurs will have collected the trash this morning.

Notice the difference? In the passive voice you can’t tell WHO did the action (the “collecting” in this example) without adding a bunch more words.

The active voice is straightforward. The verb (collect) moves from the doer of the action (dinosaurs: the subject of the verb) to the receiver of the action (trash: the object of the verb).

The active voice always makes the DOER OF THE ACTION the subject of the verb: X did Y. So…

ActiveThe dinosaurs collected the trash today.

To tell the reader who collected the trash when you use the passive, you do this:

The trash was collected today by dinosaurs.

Notice the direction of the action. The target of the action — trash — appears at the front of the sentence, as the sentence’s subject. The thing that’s doing the action — dinosaurs — appears at the end of the sentence. Normally, one would expect the subject of a verb — collect, in this case — to be doing the action. But the passive voice flips that around, so that the subject of the verb receives the action.:

PassiveThe trash was collected today by dinosaurs.

That’s two additional words, contained in a prepositional phrase (a grammatical device that can be needlessly verbose): by the dinosaurs: X was done by Y. The passive voice always hides the doer of the action inside a prepositional phrase, which may or may not be made explicit:

Mistakes were made.

Uh huh! Surely not by us, eh? 😉

Here is the structure of the active voice, as plain and simple as it gets:

Subject (= doer of the action) + verb
Subject + verb + object of verb (the thing the verb acts on)


Olivia sees. (subject + verb)
Olivia speaks. (subject + verb)

Olivia sees a tree. (subject + verb + object)
Olivia speaks the truth. (subject + verb + object)

The passive voice turns things around, so that the subject is not the doer but the receiver of the action. The real object (receiver) of the action ends up as the verb’s subject, and the thing or person that does the action is hidden inside a prepositional phrase, by XXX. The prep phrase may or may not be uttered aloud.

Subject (= receiver of action) + a verb of being + a past participle (let’s call this an “-ed word”) + prep phrase

The verbs of being are am, is, was, were, be, being, been. A “past participle” is a descriptive word based on a verb set in any of the various past forms seen in English (-ed, -en, and various irregulars). Verbs of being are not in themselves “passive”; in the passive voice, a verb of being is simply used as a “helping verb” with a past participle to express a phrase’s action.


The tree is watered. (Subjectbe verb + -ed word + implicit prep phrase)
The tree is watered by Olivia. (Subject + be verb + -ed word + explicit prep phrase)

The truth was spoken. (Subject + be verb + -ed word + implicit prep phrase)
The truth was spoken by Olivia (Subject + be verb + -ed word + explicit prep phrase)

The advantages of the active voice are these:

1) It transmits more information faster than the passive voice. It’s more succinct and less verbose.

2) Because it doesn’t hide information in a prepositional phrase, making the reader wait until the end of the utterance to find out who-done-it — or even leave that detail out altogether — it promotes clarity. Clarity is what you as a writer must demand. It is what you strive for. It is what makes your readers love you.

The passive voice, however, has its uses. Let’s consider a little story to illustrate.

Our friend Joe is hiking in the mountains. He likes to take his blunderbuss with him, so he’s tromping along with his long gun in hand. He is happy.

The passive voice has its uses -- such as if you're telling a story about a bear.Suddenly he hears a rustling in the brush. What should pop up but…EEEEK! A bear!!

Joe takes his blunderbluss and blows the bear away!

Now he’s mighty proud. Though he wonders in passing how he’s going to drag this 600-pound trophy five miles back down the trail to his pick-up, just this moment he’s celebrating. He’s perched his foot on the deceased’s head and is pounding his chest, bellowing Kreeegah! Tarzan bundolo!

Now comes another rustling in the brush. Joe, who’s not the dimmest bulb despite the present appearances, quickly shoves his rifle under the nearest jojoba bush and stands aside. Now what should pop out but, heaven help us, the game warden!

Bears happen to be out of season today. And even if it were bear season, Joe is such a cheapskate he wouldn’t spring for a hunting permit, anyway.

“Heavens to Betsey!” the game warden exclaims. “What happened here?”

“Officer,” Joe replies, “this bear was shot!”

Joe, a retired career non-com, now works in a government office. He is a past master of the passive voice. He knows how to use it, he knows when to use it, and he knows why to use it.

Here, he uses it to pass the buck: he obscures his part in the event. It’s a deliberate ploy to confuse the game warden and throw him off the track.

Now, during all of this, we happen to have been hiding in the shrubbery, and we’ve witnessed this entire series of shenanigans. We are tree-huggers, and we are outraged! So, we jump out of the bushes, point our fingers at the perp, and holler, “Officer, that bear was shot by Joe!”

Notice what happens here. When we make our accusation, we also use the passive voice, but we do it to emphasize our finger-pointing.

In the English language, the most emphatic position is usually at the end of an utterance. The second most emphatic position is at the beginning. This is true on the sentence level as well as on the paragraph and the thematic level.

When we jump up and tell the game warden that the bear was shot by Joe, we not only say the bear was shot, we emphasize in no uncertain terms that JOE shot the bear.

This brings us to the second misconception about the passive: that you should never, ever use a passive construction. No. 🙄

There are two good reasons to use the passive voice:

1) To obscure the truth; and
2) To emphasize a point about who did something.

Otherwise, though, the passive voice is wordy and mealy-mouthed. If you must use it, do so only for a good reason.

Image: Brown bear in Norway. Taral Jansen/Soldatnytt. Wikipedia Commons. Originally posted to Flickr as Landskonferansen 2010.

What to Do about Writer’s Block? Part 2

Tips on getting over writer's blockThis is the second installment of a four-part discussion of ways to handle writer’s block. The first post appeared yesterday.

Remember that gold is a soft metal. Your golden words are malleable — NOT graven in granite!

Regard what you’ve written as draft at all times. Never stop revising. And be aware that it’s a lot easier to revise and rework than it is to choke out brand-new creative content. Just get it down on paper. Or on disk. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Not the first time around, not the second time around, not the third time around.

Knowing that you can always jimmy the copy, add to the copy, cut the copy, totally change the copy makes it a lot easier to get something out.

Just write it, and don’t worry if it isn’t perfect.

Chapter 1, Take 1 (or Take 2 something like that):

It should feel good, Kay thought. Watching this happen should feel good. He ought to feel back-slapping, hollering, falling-down-drunk happy, or at least for God’s sake like raising a swig of whiskey to the moment.

He and his cousin, Mitch―Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos―stood atop a promontory, just a low butte, actually, about a hundred feet tall, and surveyed the battle’s aftermath. Fallon, still clad in his leather chest armor, saw them climbing up here. He followed and joined them a few minutes after they stopped at the bluff’s edge. When he reached the two, he shook Kay’s hand, punched Mitch on the shoulder, congratulated them on a fine day’s work.

And the men had done a day’s work. Together the three looked out over the scene. Hengliss allies―Okan and A’oan marching under the Okan brez, Lhored Kubna of Grisham Lekvel―had taken the town in three weeks flat. It was an incredible feat. Roksan, the principal city of their principal enemy, should have been impregnable. But they had shown it was not. Now the men, scruffy irregulars, most of them, pressed into duty by the obligations of their betters and not because they knew much about soldiering, spread over the plain before the burning town’s gate. No one down there seemed to suffer any qualms. Their noise reached the hilltop as unruly hubbub like a huge outdoor party gone too far in drink. Men laughed and shouted, a few surviving women squealed as the boys had their fun with them, horses and wagons rattled around. Guys compared plunder, traded booty―some had set up open-air markets to trade or sell the loot they’d carried from the city before the heat pushed them out.

A brown and gray pillar twisted upward toward white clouds that galloped before a chasing wind, and Kay knew the smart breeze would keep those fires going until they had done their job. The place would burn to the ground before they smoldered out. The flames would leave a pile of ashes, maybe a few blackened rafters, charred bricks. And scorched bones.

Fal, wiry and saturnine, his dark beard and mustache trimmed as if to cut down wind resistance, offered his boda to the two older men. They accepted the liquor cheerfully. The drink passed between them while they gazed at the scene below.

“Beautiful sight, isn’t it?” Mitchel remarked.

“Oh, yeah,” Kay said. “That it is.”

“Must do your heart good.”

“You bet.”

“How long has it been for you?” Fal asked.

“Twenty-eight years,” Kay replied.

Chapter 1, Take 5 or 10:

Fallon Mayr of Cheyne Wells rarely gave himself over to speculation. If on this good day you had asked him how the Hengliss tribes came to see themselves as one being, a living organism whose limbs and body and soul formed a single piece—or even if they did—he would have laughed. He would direct your attention to the pillar of smoke twisting skyward where Roksan burned, and he would turn your question obliquely around. He would ask you, then, had they not, the bands of Okan and A’o fighting as one under the Brez Lhored Kubna of Grisham Lekvel, had they not done a fine thing?

He passed the lambskin flask that was making the rounds among several companions to Jag Bova Mayr of Rozebek. Bova, a chunky flaxen-bearded northerner whose heft made Fal’s long, wiry frame look slight by comparison, lifted the boda in a friendly salute, swigged its unrefined contents as though he were taking a deep drink of water, and passed it to Kristof Mayr of Oshin.

“That was one hot maneuver you two pulled inside them gates,” Robin Mayr of O’a remarked to Fal. A slender, muscular young man with a smooth chestnut-colored beard, he accepted the boda from Kristof and lifted it vaguely in Fal’s direction.

“Mostly Kay’s idea,” Fal said. He shrugged as though he’d had little to do with the swath they’d ripped through the defenders in the long chaos after the Hengliss had breached the enemy city’s entrance.

“Bull!” said Jag Bova. “He couldn’t have done it by himself. And I’ll tell you—when he takes them kind of ideas into his head, I’m sure as hell glad I’m not the one who has to fight on his flank.”

Fallon laughed with the others. But he was glad, too, that it wasn’t Bova. He wouldn’t have traded his place at Kay’s side for any honor the brez could dream up.

“He had his reasons for going after the bastards like that,” Kristof remarked.

“Must have felt damned good,” Robin added. “If it’d been me, I’d have tried to squash every cockroach I could catch.”

“Yeah. Well, we just about did that,” Fal said. “Not too many of ’em left in there.”

Even where they were standing, a mile away, heat from the fires burning the sacked Espanyo city reached them. It took the chill off the cool air that drifted down the distant snow-covered Achpie and Serra peaks flanking the wide bottomland along the Wakeen Ribba.

“Ain’t none of ’em gonna crawl out of that place no more, no how,” Robin agreed. He passed the drink back to Rozebek.

Bova raised the flask to that, and they all murmured their appreciation of Robin’s whiskey-laced profundity.

“There goes your kubna with his cousin now,” said Bova. “Looks like they want to get a view of the doings.”

By “your kubna” he meant Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek, the man to whom Fal, Robin, and Kristof owed their first loyalty. The cowndee of Rozebek belonged to the house of Puns, and Jag Bova served its kubna, Rikad of Puns.

They watched Kaybrel and Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos stride through the festive troops gathered on the plain before the burning city. Kay was carrying his leather helmet in one hand, his silver-streaked hair flowing loose around his shoulders. To Fal’s eye, he looked tired, but the others didn’t see that. The two kubnas cleared the mob and headed toward a low butte that rose above what had a few hours earlier been a battlefield. They disappeared around the side of the promontory, seeking the gentle rise up the hill’s backside.

“How long has it been for him?” Robin asked.

“What? Since Moor Lek fell?” Fallon read meaning into Robin’s question. “I think he said…no, it was the kubnath who said that. Maire said it was twenty-eight years ago this spring.”

“Twenty-eight years! She wasn’t even born then, eh?”

“Neither were the rest of us,” Fal replied, and what he said applied to everyone there but Jag Bova, the only man among them to have reached his early thirties.

Lordie! I must’ve been listening to Willie and Toby singin’ Whiskey for My Men when I scribbled that version.

Sometimes if you can’t move forward with the new writing, going back and revising material you already have will help. Notice how radically different Take 2 is from the first effort: a different character’s point of view, an entirely different set of characters with the protagonist taken off center stage, facts presented in a slightly different context through the mouths of different characters, and a different kind of characterization of a central figure.

I’ve found that every time you rewrite a scene from beginning to end, it improves. Often, even very small changes — a turn of phrase here, a gesture there, a detail or a word choice — have a large effect.

Have you had that experience?

Writer’s Block? What to Do?? Part I

Writer's block -- what to do?Students and scribbling friends have occasionally asked, over the years, for ideas on how to handle writer’s block. It’s not something I had much problem with, at least not as a working journalist, and so I have to confess to emanating a few glib answers:

Visualize your byline on the “Pay to the Order of” line on the paycheck.
Imagine your editor’s response when you call to say you’ll be late on deadline: “Bye!” Once and for all.
Write a letter to your mom describing all the things you learned on assignment. The story will write itself after that.
Go play with the cat.
Pour yourself a (glass of wine, cup of coffee, can of soda).
Go for a walk.
Quit with the drama already and get down to work!

Those of us who write on deadline for pay rarely suffer from “writer’s block” — there’s no time for it — and so for years I doubted it was for real. But once I began to write novels, I realized that fiction is one heckuva lot harder to write than nonfiction. So much so, in fact, that you really do reach impasses where you know what you want to say (you think) and you think you know what your characters are gonna do and you can envision the time and the place and the action but it just won’t come out in words!

Disturbing. What to do when this happens?

It’s occurred a number of times during the writing of the Fire-Rider novels, and especially in Book II, which is in progress and which carries the characters and the action home from the battlefield and into new, more sophisticated psychological and moral territory than they traversed during the swashbuckling Book I. I’ve actually been reduced to having to think, of all the despair-inducing shockers.

Several chapters are written in the first person, from the point of view of a character named Hapa Cottrite, whose journals, in the series’ larger conceit, are the source of all we know about the people of the dark ages from which he writes. Cottrite: he flummoxes me. He’s smarter than me. His insights are sharp and closely observed. But he’s an outsider, and I’m not sure how much he understands, how much he intuits, and how much he could be expected to misinterpret or even to know nothing about. Meanwhile, because he’s an outsider, the other characters’ responses to him are multifarious and sometimes unpredictable. I’m almost scared of Cottrite.

None of this is conducive to fluent writing.

Nothing makes it easy, but a few strategies have come to hand. Let’s start with one today, and move on to others in the coming posts.

Enter notes, no matter how fragmentary, at the bottom of a chapter or scene. Use these as cues to help jump-start the narrative and keep it rolling around.

The current problematic scene has Lhored, the local boss of bosses (he’s the equivalent of a medieval king), visiting the widow and two sister wives of one of his followers (Mitchel), who was murdered while catting around a town they visited after a disastrous battle with the enemy. She is a potentate in her own right; her young adult son is a chip off his father’s block, not an altogether flattering comparison.

Lhored of Grisham Lekvel and two of Mitch’s followers arrive at Mitch’s castle; word of Mitch’s death has preceded them. Braced to answer her questions and to make some difficult explanations, they offer their sympathies. But…but…THEN what? And where is Mitch’s son?

She nodded patiently. “Let’s sit down.” She waved us all toward the fine leather and wool chairs and benches that populated the hall. Lhored was directed into a comfortable armchair and I was seated nearby. The three women pulled up smaller chairs to make a conversation circle around Lhored, the two mayrs, and me. Food and drink appeared, borne by two [women who look working class] and a young boy, and we were all served, solid stoneware dishes a luxury after our weeks of eating off tin plates.

“You’ve heard the news we bring,” Lhored began.

“Yes. We heard before Mak’s men reached Rittamun. One of the outlying herdsmen brought word a couple of days ago.”

“I’m sorry,” he said.

She let this rest briefly. “They say he didn’t die in battle. Can you…will you tell us how this happened?”

Lhored looked pained. This, he had said more than once, was the conversation he dreaded, and here it was upon him. “Bett,” he said, “we don’t really know.”

Zzzzzz…. Okay, you can’t be exciting every moment. Move on, move on!

Notes at the end of the file:

[what is going on here? What is Hapa observing? Move forward into some other part of this chapter and then come back here. This piece is going nowhere!]

What’s going on here? Darned if I know. Start writing some other part of the chapter? That’s a possibility. Then this comes to mind:

[Lhored is about to speak when Lenn shows up. Lenn is surly, aggressive, and obnoxious. He demands to know what happened to Mitch. What was he doing out there alone. Then he demands to know why they let him go out alone and D says he tried to go along and was rejected & the others say that’s so. They work their way around to saying HC was sent as a gift from the seeyo; they’d probly better tell them about the elaborate funeral and the loot first.]

 All right. Let’s try that. It’s better than working, anyway. I guess. {sigh}

The front door opened, letting in a beam of light, and someone was heard passing through the vestibule. A tall, slender young man, about seventeen and still beardless, entered the hall. Dressed in work clothes and boots, he pulled off a pair of riding gloves and offered a hand to Lhored, who, with Mak and Jode, stood to greet him.

 “Grisham Lekvel,” he said, accepting a firm squeeze on the shoulder from the brez. “And gentlemen: thank you for coming. Mother,” he addressed the kubnath, who remained seated, “sorry I’m late. We were working the stallion up on the other side of Nole’s Butte. I came as soon as Wood let us know you were on the way up the road.”

 “It’s good to see you, Lenn,” Lhored replied. “And it’s good you were able to be here.”

 He gestured as though he was about to introduce me to the young new kubna, obviously Mitchel of Cham Fos’s son, but Lenn interrupted.

 “Lhored,” he said, “let’s get down to business. What the hell happened to my father?”

Meji gasped softly. The other two widows glanced at Lhored expectantly. Jode and Mak looked on, stolid as ever.

 If Lhored was annoyed or otherwise perturbed, he didn’t let it show. “He was murdered,” he said.

 “Yeah, so we’re told. How did that happen? And who did it?”

 “He died on a street in Lek Doe. Apparently the killer was a thief that jumped him.”

 “That doesn’t make any sense. My father would take out anyone who tried to bring him down.”

 “He probably didn’t see the guy come up on him. It was stone dark that night.”


 “Mm hm. We think it was pretty late. He’d been out on the town. And he was in a lane where all the shops were closed.”

 “Come on, man! What the hell was he doing out in the middle of the night, on some godforsaken back street in Lek Doe where nothing was going on?” Behind him, Bett sent Lhored a narrow-eyed [CAUTIONARY? GIMLET? PIERCING? SHARP???] look and shook her head, almost imperceptibly, no.

 “We don’t know, Lenn. He must have gotten turned around and lost his way.”

 “How the devil could something like that happen? Who was with him?”

 “No one.”

 “No one? What was he doing out there?”

Lhored regarded Lenn while he let this set for a second or two. “He was celebrating, lad. Far as we can tell, he’d just come from a saloon.”

Salon was more like it, I thought. Liana’s place did let the liquor flow, so one could call it a bar. Sort of.

“Celebrating? If he was partying, why wasn’t anybody with him?”

Progress made. Very, very slow progress. This took all afternoon to gag out. At least we’ve got some conflict going on, between the “king” (as it were) and the surly young son of the deceased potentate, heir to his father’s rank.

We haven’t gotten around to the delicate matter of why Mitchel refused to take anyone with him when he went out for a night on the town — he was haunting his favorite houses of ill repute — nor have we explained the potentially explosive matter of why Hapa Cottrite is present: he was sent by the town’s governing councilors as a kind of “gift” to express their regret at the loss of a powerful and dangerous warlord. But at least we have something in glowing little computer characters.

Do plot outlines, scene outlines, or just random notes ever help you to get past a low spot in your writing?

The passage above is draft material for a yet-to-be published sequel. But the story of what happened to Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos appears in the third Fire-Rider volume. Order a print copy here, or download the Kindle version from Amazon.

3 Homeward Bound

Blank book image: Shutterstock, © 2016 Evgeny Atamanenko