If you’ve ever watched Antiques Roadshow you may have noticed how an ordinary Joe, when questioned by a boffin, and with a camera lens in his face, begins to use words he wouldn’t necessarily ‘employ’ (there, I’ve used one). ‘When my great aunt acquired the item she didn’t know what she had purchased.’ Suddenly the guy has a mouthful of marbles and doesn’t sound at all like himself.
William Zinsser, author of the excellent On Writing Well, observes that those mouthful-of-marbles words are particular favourites of ‘passive-voice’ writers. Using passive verbs, like using long words of Latin origin when short Anglo-Saxon ones will do, makes a text turgid and difficult to wade through. Both habits can be born of trying to make your text sound more weighty and clever.
Let’s take an example. Look at the following two sentences. You will see how the latter lacks clarity and punch. (For fun I’ve added a ‘big-up’ word too.)
Lillian found him He was located by Lillian
With that passive verb construction in the second sentence you will have noticed that you had to do more work. Instead of the verb pushing the sentence forward and giving it momentum, you probably found yourself clogged up, trying to unscramble who’s doing what, when, and to whom.
We all know that writing is really all about rewriting. So when you’re next tinkering with your manuscript or article do look out for these.
Wanda Whiteley, former Publishing Director at HarperCollins, is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Manuscriptdoctor.co.uk, a literary consultancy