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Scott Lax Blog

"Use the Active Voice" - Strunk & White's Essential Advice

Finn observing the world.
I tell students over and over and over (to quote Pee-Wee Herman) again to "use the active voice."

For example, regarding the picture to the right, you could either say, "The day Finn first rolled over on his side will always be remembered by me." It's stronger to say, "I will always remember the day Finn first rolled over on his side."

As Strunk and White say, though, "This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary."

In other words, don't fret about never using it. Or: It is not always the best way to say a thing. (The first sentence in this paragraph is active; the second passive; both work.) Learn the rule, and use your best judgement.  Read More 

How Do You Stay Afloat in an Ocean of Bad Writing?

There's so much bad writing on the Internet that I feel compelled to advise aspiring writers to ignore ninety-eight percent of it when it comes to learning to write.

If you're an aspiring author, and most of what you're reading comes from amateur blogs and badly or non-edited Web sites, I'm afraid you'll pick up a lot of bad habits. Your noble desire to learn to write well may drown in an ocean of polluted writing.

Put it this way: If you wanted to learn to play drums, you would need to watch, listen to and learn from great drummers. You wouldn't want to copy choppy paradiddles from the local rock knocker at the corner bar that's pounding away to "Moon Dance." (Sorry, but as a former professional drummer "Moon Dance" a good song, but with a cliched, deadly boring drum part, made to order for amateurs.) If you want to be a good or great drummer you should listen to Buddy Rich or John Bonham or any number (there are many) of great jazz and rock and blues drummers.

If you want to be a good or great writer, you need to read good and great writing. Go to the bookstore or library and get good books. Don't learn style from tweeters and bloggers. Learn style and usage from Strunk & Whites THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE, not from amateurs that use substitute snark for prose.

Or you can learn from good or great writing teachers. They exist. But do your homework -- read their work and/or hear what others have said about them. Just because they have a Ph.D. or M.F.A. after their names does not necessarily make them good writing teachers -- or good writers.

And if you want to learn to write well, read well. Read often. Think about what you read and why it works and why it moves you.

And then, of course, practice. Just as if you want to play drums, after you hear and study with the good and the greats, you have to practice drums. So it is with writing, too. Read More