Conventional Writing Wisdom:
It May Be Conventional, But Is
By Jeanne Dininni
Conventional wisdom tells us much about what
constitutes "good," or "quality" writing. But,
is conventional wisdom always right?
The Conventional Principles of Good Writing
The following principles are, according to conventional wisdom, virtually
indispensable to all good writing. I present them here, along with my own
thoughts about each.
Brevity Equals Clarity
Principle 1: Avoid wordiness at all costs. Simplicity and brevity
are always best. Use short sentences and few words to convey your ideas
My Response: An overly concise writing style sacrifices literary
smoothness and sophistication. Even in business writing, it's critically
important to maintain an intelligent, professional, and authoritative tone,
which is rarely accomplished by over-simplicity or excessive brevity.
I would, in fact, contend that the problem of unclear writing isn't at all
caused by wordiness, per se, but rather by a lack of facility in the effective
use of language to convey thought. When a writer makes every word count,
crafting each sentence, clause, and phrase with care, words become the source of
a richness and breadth of self-expression that would be impossible to achieve
with fewer words and less-complex sentence structure.
Such writing unquestionably requires greater concentration and mental processing
on the part of the reader. Yet that effort is rewarded by the pleasure of
partaking in the gourmet literary fare the writer has created just for the
reader's enjoyment. As writers, our job is not to spoon-feed our readers
miniscule servings of pabulum, but to provide a fabulous spread of grand ideas
beautifully garnished with well-chosen words and phrases.
Simple language has its place, to be sure. Yet, when we limit ourselves to its
exclusive use, we deprive our readers of the transcendent power of language to
raise our consciousness above the mundane, the everyday, the commonplace. We
ground their imaginations, preventing them from reaching the heights of thought
to which they are capable. And that is not what great writing is about.
As for sentence length, variation is the ideal. Breaking up more complex
sentences by varying them with shorter ones can give the reader a much-needed
breather, clearing the way for the next grand idea. And just as too many complex
sentences in a row without a break can cause mental "exhaustion" in a reader, so
also can too many short sentences in a row have the opposite effect, creating an
unpleasant, choppy, uncoordinated feel that leaves the reader bored and
dissatisfied. Short sentences can deliver ideas with impact-- but only when they
are the exception and not the rule.
Passive Voice is Passe
Principle 2: Avoid passive voice (like the plague). Active voice is
My Response: Passive voice has its place and can be used quite
effectively to achieve a more detached, clinical, authoritative, or exalted
tone. Voice is entirely dependent on the writer's purpose for a piece, and
passive voice is simply one writing technique that can improve a piece of
writing when properly used-- and when not overused. Passive voice can
provide a refreshing variation from active voice when used periodically to make
a piece more interesting. Passive voice can also be used to create a less
forward, challenging, or accusatory tone.
Don't fear passive voice; rather, use it with wisdom, discretion, and
intention-- or don't. The choice is entirely up to you. You certainly
aren't required to use it; but don't feel as if you mustn't, either.* Passive
voice, like any other writing technique, is simply one tool in the writer's
arsenal-- perhaps one of the more specialized tools, which are used less often
than the standard ones-- but, nevertheless, one which is there to be used when
needed. In writing, as in everything else, we always want to use the right tool
for the right job.
Adjectives Are Out
Principle 3: Use adjectives sparingly. In fact, remove as many of them as
possible from your writing.
My Response: I've received many a chuckle from this rule, as I've studied
the paragraphs in which various writers have expounded the rule, mentally
removing all the adjectives that hadn't been removed by them (note
the non-accusatory passive voice here), only to find that, alas, the paragraphs
that remained made little sense. I fear that most of us are unaware of the
importance of the much-maligned adjective.
In my view, there's absolutely nothing wrong with adjectives. They're wonderful
creations, which, when properly used, can add much to our writing. There's
little doubt that the adjective is sometimes overused and that it often causes
laziness in our choice of nouns by allowing us the luxury of using
less-colorful, less-descriptive, or less-precise nouns. But my personal belief
is that it's far more important to remove adverbs from our writing than
adjectives, because removing adverbs forces us to use livelier verbs, which
energizes our writing.
Adjectives should never be used simply to avoid the work involved in mining our
vocabularies for the right noun to express our thought. But, neither should we
fear the well-placed adjective, which adds substance to a sentence and builds
descriptive power into our writing.
Those are my personal thoughts on a few of the rules of conventional writing
What do you think?
* This sentence illustrates the happy marriage of passive and active voice. The
first clause is passive, the second active. (This entire paragraph in fact
represents the friendly give and take between active and passive voice. As you
can see by the unforced variation between them, the two can indeed peacefully
This article is adapted from a post published on the
Writer's Notes blog on March 27, 2008:
Jeanne Dininni is a freelance
writer whose works currently appear in numerous different venues, both in print
and online. She writes business guides at Work.com and authors the
Writer's Notes blog, which offers information, inspiration, encouragement,
and resources to writers to help them succeed in their craft.