Direct and Active Writing: Strength in Clarity

Bronco Nagurski was a football and wrestling legend from International Falls, MN. In college he played for the University of Minnesota (1927-1929) and when he turned professional, played as a tackle on defense and as fullback on offense for the Chicago Bears (1930-1937). His strength was like no other players on the field. After he retired from football, he returned to his hometown and opened a service station. “A local legend claims that Nagurski had the best repeat business in town because he would screw customers' gas caps on so tightly after filling their tanks that no one else in town could unscrew them” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bronko_Nagurski). Like Bronco, your writing needs to take command by deploying a number of strategies. 
 
First, a strong writing style uses an active voice so the subject of the sentence acts on the verb. In contrast, in passive voice, the verb takes over and acts on the subject. Clearly, an active voice is stronger and more directive. Passive verbs include is, was, or were (past participles of ‘to be’). Writers may occasionally use passive voice, but it should be used when the focus is on the verb, on a vague subject (e.g., a group not a person where the performer is unknown), or where the context is legal or scientific. As Strunk and White (2000) describe the effect: “The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive voice…When a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor” (pp. 18-19).
 
Second, follow a number of other suggestions (rather than rules) from Strunk and White to compose with a strong writing style.
• Place yourself in the background, often conveyed by proper use of pronouns necessarily connected to subjects who convey the story line so the reader knows who’s speaking.
• Write with nouns and verbs…”not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.” (p. 71).
• Revise and rewrite. Free writing (with a design in mind) can often jump start the voice and general design). Later, in reviewing the text, snippets can pulled out, drawn and quartered, placed at the end, and simply rearranged to create the structure and the voice.
• Avoid the use of qualifiers…”Rather, very, little, pretty – these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood out of words” (p. 73). Also avoid meaningless subjects like ‘there’ and ‘it’ as they are weak and point to vague and irrefutable conjectures.
• Be clear by using various writing techniques: topic sentences that guide the reader in the microsystem of paragraphs, transition words that serve as road signs across paragraphs, and logical sections that build like a Lego® structure and frame the entire composition.
 
WRN can be used to enhance writers’ style by developing exercises that reflect many of these strategies to write from a position of strength and vigor. In the prompt, list sentences that use challenging styles (poorly framed sentences). Highlight the words in buckets: Ill-defined nouns and pronouns, transition words, and passive voice. Challenge students to re-write the sentences that remove the challenging style and reflect a stronger sentence.
 
Moral of this blog: Writing style needs to be tendered with care and discipline, conveyed in specific contexts, and practiced with sufficient frequency to be instantiated. Importantly,  active writing doesn't just happen but needs to be explicitly taught.
 

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