Writing Crutches

I am currently finishing the latest editing pass of …Warns The Ruling Circle…, chapter three of Gods Among Men. I have reached the point in my editing process where I listen to the recording of the writers group meeting where the chapter was reviewed. In the middle of the recording is a point about how I keep using the passive voice in my writing.

This relates to my long standing war with grammar. I am, at best, poor at spotting these types of problems. I have to use a dictionary or do research on the web to define “passive voice”. Even then, the definition is a just a string of words to me. I recognize each word, I can tell the definition is well formed and clear, I get the basic concept, but a clear grasp of the details never crosses into into my consciousness.

Mind you, I am not a stupid man. I am a computer programmer. I read and understand highly technical books and articles loaded with technical jargon on a regular basis. Nevertheless, I don’t really understand something like:

form of “to be” + past participle = passive voice

Here’s what I do get: Does a sentence sound awkward and ill-formed or not?

For example, “Why was the road crossed by the chicken?” sounds to my ears like an awkward phrase. It is an unnatural way to ask the question. It has the same content as “Why did the chicken cross the road?” which is clear and more natural. I know, intellectually, the awkward sound of the first version comes from the fact it is in passive voice. I know this because the web site I copied it from says so. Had the website not explained this I would never have been able to identify the problem, I would have just known there was a problem.

Listening to recording of the writers group meeting, I realized that the passive voice creeps into my writing as a writing crutch. The passive voice is not grammatically incorrect, but it does detract from the content of the writing. Often, the passive voice is a lazy way to say something.

As I write, particularly on my early drafts, I tend to focus first on plot and character. Style is a matter of polishing the final work. Rewording a sentence to avoid the passive voice takes more time and effort. Rather than take that time, make that effort, I unconsciously lean on the passive voice over and over. Over time, using this writing crutch weakens my characters and erodes the story.

This is not the first time I found myself relying upon a writing crutch. The use of the “ly” words is also a crutch. (Angrily, sleepily, madly, stoically, happily, sadly, etc….) These words are a lazy way to establish a mood or emotion. Often they can be left out without changing the content of a sentence, letting the context establish mood and emotion. Sometimes descriptions are needed instead. For example, “What do you want,” she asked angrily. versus, “What do you want?” she asked, her hand clenched in a fist.

When I discovered I had an problem with overusing and abusing “ly” words I declared war upon them. I began scouring my writing for every instance and replaced as many as possible. Sometimes I couldn’t, but I did manage to reduce the problem to an acceptable level. Now I try to avoid “ly” words in the first draft, which makes my editing process shorter and simpler.

With regards to the passive voice problem, I am now declaring war on the “to be” verbs. (Is, are, am, was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being.) This lets me focus on a well-defined set of words that are often the hallmark of the passive voice. When I find a sentence with one of these words I will examine it to see if I can rewrite it without a “to be” verb. Often I won’t be able to, but just as often I will discover a more natural, less awkward way of expressing the same idea. At the very least, I believe the practice will make me a better writer.

I admit, this approach is a gimmick. It isn’t a true substitute for understanding grammar. But, since I don’t really understand grammar, I have to rely on gimmicks to help me improve my skills. It may not be the best approach, but it is a technique that has worked well for me so far.

Recording The Writers Group Meetings

Last night I finished another edit of chapter two of Gods Among Men, …Awakens the Outer Circle…. During the editing process I used a recording of the Magic City Writers meeting where the chapter was reviewed and suggestions made. This is a practice I will continue to use.

I became aware of my need to make recordings some months after the OmegaCon convention in the spring of 2008 in Birmingham Alabama. It was the first time I ever attended writer panels and workshops. The experience was inspirational on many levels. It led me to recruit other aspiring writers into the group we now call the Magic City Writers. (Well, I call it that and no one so far has objected.)

Months went by and the OmegaCon convention retreated from my memories. The group’s reviews of my work accumulated. I began to see the limits of note taking. Moments that had major significance at the convention became vague recollections. Specific suggestions from the group were now cryptic notes even I couldn’t fully understand.

I began recording the group meetings, and at ImagiCon in 2009 I recorded all the panels I attended. I’m not sure I shall ever revisit the recordings of the panels, but the recordings of the meetings has proven invaluable.

My editing process has become this:

  1. Review the general comments each person wrote about my chapter and do an editing pass addressing those issues specifically.
  2. Go through the chapter line-by-line and check for any comments made about that specific line. Make changes as needed.
  3. Clean up any garbage I may have accidentally added in the first two steps.
  4. Listen closely to the recording of the meeting to see if I have missed anything major.

In each of times I’ve used these recordings I’ve discovered several major points not in any written notes or suggestions. Forgotten moments no longer than a minute or two, buried in several hours of recorded interplay. It is invariably a point when the conversation was flowing and ideas were being tossed about rapidly. Sometimes it is a point I made, an insight I had, which I failed to write down and have forgotten in the weeks after the meeting. Something that was impossible to pause and record on paper without dissipating the creative energy being produced.

When I find such a nugget I stop the playback and address the issue. Sometimes it takes minutes, sometimes hours. The end result is a block of writing that I can definitively state is better than it was before.

For me, recording group meeting and brainstorming sessions so I can replay them at least once is a crucial part of my writing process. It is the only way to be sure the final work is as strong as I can make it.