Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Archive for the tag “writing”

Writer Productivity Tip: Have a Routine

I’ve officially joined the ranks of the Query Tracker Blog team, and what follows was originally posted on the QT Blog yesterday. The good news is, official blog duties will keep me from being too much of a slacker, no matter how insane the rest of my life may be.

Now to the post:

Almost every parent I know understands the importance of the “bedtime ritual.” The components are usually something along the lines of: bathe the child, put on pajamas, brush teeth, read a couple of stories, get a drink of water, sing a song, say no to a second glass of water, say good night, say no to the next two requests to get up and get a glass of water, the child falls asleep. When the schedule is disrupted, even if it’s late and the child should be exhausted, getting the child to sleep is much harder.
The bedtime ritual works because of a psychological function called cognitive cuing. The child’s brain has essentially wired itself to understand that the endpoint of the bedtime ritual is sleep. The process of relaxing into that state begins with the bath, and each step in the ritual is a conditioned step toward sleeping. There’s nothing intrinsically sleep-inducing about most of the steps themselves—brushing your teeth is not, independently, a cue for your brain to prepare for slumber. The key is simply the existence of the ritual.

Not surprisingly, when researchers have tried to examine the ideal situation for creative writing, what they’ve largely found is that the presence of a routine—cognitive cuing—is essential. In his book The Psychology of Writing, Cognitive psychologist Ronald T. Kellogg explains:

This phenomenon can be reinterpreted in terms of the cognitive concept of encoding specificity. The abstract ideas, images, plans, tentative sentences, feelings, and other personal symbols that represent the knowledge needed to construct a text are associated with the place and time of the writing environment. These associations are strongest when the writer engages in few if any extraneous activities in the selected environment. Entering the environment serves as a retrieval cue for the relevant knowledge to enter the writer’s awareness.

In other words, going to the same place at the same time, then doing the same thing (writing awesome prose) when you get there, teaches your brain to expect to write. Instead of wasting a page or two “getting into the zone,” your brain eventually wires itself to know, “It’s six-thirty AM, I brushed my teeth, made a cup of coffee with my sexy French press, and ate some fruit, Now I’m sitting at the desk with my fingers on the keys, it must be time for awesome prose to explode out of my fingertips.

Substituting a different time of day to meet your scheduling needs wouldn’t harm anything (or much, Kellogg talks about time of day, too). You can swap brushing teeth for a regular chat session with a CP or turn that desk into a local coffee shop. Ultimately, what will yield results is your mind associating the routine with being deep inside a character, deep inside your novel. A place you can start writing from by giving your mind those cognitive cues that it’s time to be there.


An Open Letter to Beta Readers

The main problem with beta readers is their impulse to lie their asses off. Their inclination is to react to our books like we handed them a ceramic handpirnt on Mothers’ Day and tell us how beautiful they think it is without even wondering whether they do. There can be other issues, too. I’m ridiculously bad at beta reading. I can’t even read published works the way I want betas to read mine. The last time I offered to beta read a novel was a little less than a year ago. If that experience was any indication, I should call myself an omega reader or something, because the beta thing certainly didn’t stick.

What follows is the first draft of an open letter to REAL beta readers — nonwriter acquaintances we somehow cajole into reading our stuff like they bought it at the airport and try like hell to keep from lying to us about the content:

Dear Beta Reader:

Thank you for agreeing to read my manuscript. There is also a chance you think you’ve agreed to force yourself to get through it and tell me how good it is, like it’s some godawful casserole your Grandmother made. If you approach it that way, I’d be a lot better off not asking you to read it. You’d sure as hell be better off not spending your evenings clawing through a heaping plate of mashed turnips and spam that reminds Grandma of her childhood; an era historians call the “Great Depression,” because it was so, well, depressing.

It is entirely possible you’ll get a page or a chapter or five chapters in and, if you’d just borrowed this book from a friend, put it down. THAT is valuable feedback to me. In fact, there is no more valuable feedback you could give if that happened. “I lost interest after Chapter Two,” is something I can use. “I love the way the saltiness from the stale potato chips offsets the blandness of the turnips,” is not.

My keyboard will not be awash in tears because one person lost interest in or didn’t enjoy my book. The two books I most recently started and couldn’t bring myself to finish were the second Hunger Games book and that Da Vinci Code meets Dante thing by Dan Brown. Both were wildly successful, and me not being the target audience for them doesn’t change that. You not being the target audience for my book won’t define my own opinion of it either, but it would be useful information. Useful information is all I’m asking for.

How much feedback or what form that takes is totally your call. I am not asking you to proofread this for me, and it’s no accident the file extension is “Final 27.” I find typos in published books, so I’m certain there are still a handful in here, but proofreading is the one thing I’m specifically NOT asking for. What I really want is for you to read some or all of it, and talk to me about it like you would if I had nothing to do with it. I work with a couple of people who look very closely at every tree and pine cone, and I’ve had a lot of that type of feedback already. Now I want to see what someone thinks of the forest.

This is a form letter I use whenever I send my manuscript to a beta reader. My total investment in you reading my manuscript is the thirty seconds it took me to cut and paste this into an email and attach a .pdf file. By the time you’ve read this email, you have expended more effort in being my beta reader than I have in getting you to be that, so you don’t owe me a thing. Now you have a free book you may or may not like, and I consider it a favor that you’re willing to read the first page. If you read the second page, do it because of that first page, and not for any other reason.

Thanks again.

Show & Tell (Not “Show Don’t Tell,” because that’s just stupid)

“Show don’t tell” is one of the most common pieces of writing advice. It’s also stupid. Catchy, but stupid. If you tried to write a novel only showing, never telling, you would… Well, basically, you’d have Ulysses, by James Joyce. Not that he doesn’t tell, too. My point is you’d end up needing to use a quarter of a million words to describe each day in each character’s life.

You simply cannot show everything. This, like nearly everything else in writing, is a question of balance. A well written book is a good combination of showing and telling that lets the reader experience things through actions and senses (showing) at a good pace (which requires telling).

What does “Show Don’t Tell” Really Mean?

Some of the confusion stems from the fact that there are a few different categories of “telling,” and what this advice means depends heavily on which tell people are saying should be shown.

Telling through adverbs and adjectives

For the most part, “show don’t tell” advice usually boils down to a simple precept: replace adverbs and adjectives with actions and detail. Instead of telling the reader someone was angry at the end of a phone call (adjective) or hung up angrily (adverb), have her hang up by screaming the word “bastard!” and throwing her phone at the wall. If in doubt, she can get a hammer and scream “bastard, bastard, bastard,” in time to the hammer’s beat against the now-shattered phone’s carcass.  Don’t tell me that she is displeased to see a blue screen on her computer, show me:


The problem is, you simply cannot “show don’t tell.” The very thing we try to accomplish by showing – vivid scenes that bring the reader in close – will stop working if we do nothing but show. If your character glances quickly over her shoulder before ducking into an alley, a lengthy description of her head twisting on her neck, eyes moving to the side, etc., will convey that feeling a lot less effectively that “glanced quickly.”

That said, as soon as I typed and saw that adverb I had an urge to change it to “shot a glance” or use some other stronger verb to kill the need for the adverb, so my example would disappear on my first editing pass. I decided to leave it (and this confession) to underscore the fact that I’m not saying “tell don’t show.” My point is simply that we need both, balanced as well as possible, to make our reading pop. If the detective notices someone hurriedly leave a room, and that subtle cue needs to stay subtle for six more chapters, we don’t want to go into greater detail.


“She slid the key into the ignition and twisted. A slight click, then…”

That’s a show, but whether it’s a good one or not depends heavily on whether the car blows up or she drives to work. Just like we don’t want to “tell” about the bomb wired to the ignition (“she started her car, then it blew up” is not good writing) we also don’t want to show every step a character takes to get from one scene that matters to another. The slightly bitter taste on the back of a character’s tongue may be a good show if it’s poison, it may even be a good show if it’s just arugula, but we still don’t want to get bogged down in every sensation every character experiences. Sometimes all that matters is that they ate.  Showing well and telling well are critical components to pacing well. “Show don’t tell” is like a cookbook that says “just cook everything at 500 degrees.” Rare roast beef and baked potatoes can’t be cooked at the same temperature. If we want a well-rounded meal, er, book, we need to be willing to pay attention to the knob.

Descriptions (Don’t tell me about the moon shining, show me an apocryphal quote)

A few of you (at least one, I’m certain) probably got this far and wondered: Where’s the awesome Chekhov quote? Because, yes, the best quote about showing and telling is from Anton Chekhov, and, yes, I am, indeed, Anton Chekhov’s bitch. And the most oft-cited quote on this topic is from Dr. Chekhov, who admonished:

Don’t Tell Me the Moon Is Shining; Show Me the Glint of Light on Broken Glass

Except he didn’t. At least not that I’ve ever seen. I mean, sure, you can find thousands of citations that say he said that, but I’ve yet to see one that pointed me to a specific letter or play or anything else where he purportedly said this. Ironically, though I don’t think he ever TOLD us to do this, he SHOWED us what to do in his short story Hydrophobia:

The dam, flooded with moonlight, showed not a bit of shade; on it, in the middle, the neck of a broken bottle glittered like a star. 

Description is, by definition, telling. If you look at masters of description, like Chekhov and Hemingway, something striking leaps out. Instead of describing a static scene or backdrop, they nearly always describe things in a state of motion or flux. More often, they describe an action on the part of a character that incorporates the description and sets the scene without simply telling us what things look like. A cowboy getting seasick in the desert sun from the rise and fall of heat waves cresting on the parched soil and scrub in front of him is painting a scene for us through his eyes and reaction. The result, and goal, are still to paint a scene, but bringing it in through the character’s experience often paints it better.

Often, but not always.

Adverb/adjective, summary, and description tells are each different. Sometimes, those tells are the best tool for the job, and should be used as such. Other times, showing will make writing pop. It’s really a question of pacing as much as anything else. The advice is doled  out as “show, don’t tell” because few beginning writers make the opposite mistake. The problem is, giving the advice that way ENCOURAGES people to make the opposite mistake. “Decide whether to show or tell or combine the two in the way that best fits with the tenor and tone and pacing of that particular scene,” just isn’t catchy enough.

The Best Book About How To Write is Free (yay free)

I have some strong opinions about “How To” books by and for writers. One opinion, really: They usually do more harm than good. They contain opinions from authors about what worked for those particular authors on the particular books those authors wrote. Which would be great, if those authors had time machines and could send copies of their “How To” books to themselves twenty years ago. As guides for the rest of us, though, they usually suck.

Using the time machine and sending “here’s how you will write” books to themselves would still probably do more harm than good. The process that got them to the level of success that warrants a “How To” book certainly included about a million valuable mistakes. It also probably involved a lot of reading—real books, with well-developed characters, interesting plots, and compelling dialogue, instead of douchey how to manuals. Novels that showed them what good writing is, instead of telling them how to construct the “Next Bestseller” or a “Blockbuster Novel.” A compelling narrative is not an IKEA bookshelf, and no assembly manual will ever tell anyone – other than the person who wrote it – how best to assemble it.

Outlining is an example I’ve used before. Ken Follett advises a complex 25-40 page chapter-by-chapter outline, including plotted biographies of each character. Stephen King, on the other hand says an outline “freezes it, it takes what should be a liquid, plastic, malleable thing to me and turns it into something else.” He’s even gone so far as to say, “it’s the difference between going to a canvas and painting a picture and going out and buying a Craftsmaster paint-by-the-numbers kit.”

Who’s right? Both are, with respect to how they should write. Neither is, with respect to how anyone but Ken Follett and Stephen King should write. If he hates doing it, Stephen King is not going to write a better novel if he’s forced to create a forty-page outline first. Ken Follett obviously works best with that kind of preparation and structure. The Pillars of the Earth would not improve if Follett decided to say “what the hell” and just start winging it.

[Note to Mr. King: Writing your own outline is not like buying a kit someone else created. By your estimation, every finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in the last two years and virtually every Nobel Laureate do “paint-by-the-numbers” fiction. The difference is more akin to doing a sketch before putting the brush to canvas, which hacks like da Vinci and Rembrandt did, than paint-by-the-numbers, which kindergarteners do between naptime and snack.]

The best book a person can read to learn how to write is the fifty best books in her genre. Period. There is no substitute for doing that. Even to the extent there are worthwhile things to learn from books about writing, getting any real value out of them requires that you already be immersed in good writing. If you aren’t immersed in the craft itself, books discussing it theoretically aren’t going to do jack shit for your writing.

The First Five Pages is a fine book, but until you’re ready to conceive and give birth to a novel, it won’t do you much good. Self Editing for Fiction Writers is certainly a helpful, hands-on craft guide, if you’ve created something to edit. Save the Cat and Scene & Structure certainly explain how to structure a narrative, but without the formed context of what your own narrative should be, the result will be more akin to what King was warning about than anything Rembrandt ever produced. After immersing yourself in the specific type of book you want to write, the core elements and themes should become self-evident—with or without a handy checklist of core elements and themes.

But I promised a recommendation,

and I intend to deliver. Not a douchey “all” (Here’s a list of 500 novels I think everyone should read) or “nothing” (Craft books? We don’t need no stinkin’ craft books”) recommendation. An honest-to-god recommendation.

Some of you know me well enough to know what I’m going to say. If you found this blog because “Michael J. McDonagh” is the number one result when you Google “Anton Chekhov’s bitch” you’ve probably got a pretty good idea as well.


Physician, comedy writer, grandson of a serf (read: Tsarist Russian slave), and master of the short story, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov provided the most helpful and useful writing advice I have ever found anywhere. Not just “write with your heart” platitudes, either. Direct, craft-oriented advice. Advice that could never come from someone fattening her wallet or stoking her ego by hawking a book to aspiring writers. Advice that comes almost entirely from letters the patient, dutiful mentor wrote to people he was emotionally invested in. Loving, fatherly advice about how to do something from someone who was a master at doing it himself. Not given as grand proclamations or even for posterity. Straight-up advice to people asking him for help learning to write better.

As a doctor, Chekhov went out of his way to help the poor (who were not particularly hard to find in Tsarist Russia). As a writer, he evolved from a popular “lowbrow” comedic writer to a literary figure as venerated as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. But, always, he studied the craft the way a scientist studies anything, with a deep need to objectively understand the world, even if, as a writer, it was a often world of his own creation.

His letters are fascinating. They are also public domain, which means 100% free (yay, free!). Creighton University has collected many of the key sentences and paragraphs about the craft of writing in one place (so, I guess, “Here’s your How To book”): Anton Chekhov on Writing. If that taste makes you want to read a much larger, less focused, but richer collection, check out either The Letters of Anton Chekhov to his Family and Friends or the Project Gutenberg version of the same book (yes, still public domain, which means, yay, still free).

Even Chekhov’s papers are no substitute for exposing yourself to good writing in a deep, meaningful way. But if you want to experience something that is as close to sitting down for the night with the great masters and a bottle of scotch as any of us are likely to get, buy a bottle of scotch and start reading. Those collections are a goldmine. They are arguably the greatest wealth of writing tips in existence, and completely free.

So there’s my recommendation. Screw all they quasi-mysterious “keys to the craft” bullshit, and read some damn books. Then read how a true master, who isn’t shilling his own crap to make money, talks to an aspirant. It’s concrete stuff, but it isn’t a checklist. Because if the bullshit checklist craft books worked, nobody would write anything but brilliant narratives. Plus all of our books would look the same, and who the hell wants that?

Get back to me when you’ve had a chance to check out those links. I am thinking of expanding the “Anton Chekhov’s Bitches” organization. If that’s not a convention worth flying to, I don’t know what is.



Alpha Readers, Betas & Critique Partners: The ABCs of having a book that doesn’t suck.

Relationships with alpha readers (“alphas”) beta readers (“betas”) and critique partners (“CPs”) are RELATIONSHIPS. That fact, so key I’m yelling in bold, permeates every aspect of this topic. For starters, those relationships can range from “If you show me yours, I’ll show you mine” casual one night stands to serious, long-term “I feel as invested in your writing as I do my own” literary soul mates. The relationships evolve, grow, and/or end. I could easily drop a couple thousand words just analogizing alpha/beta/CP (“ABC”) pairings to every other relationship you could imagine—from parents to prostitutes—and barely scratch the surface. But let’s get to some definitions so we can at least make sure we’re all on the same page when we’re talking about this stuff.

Although I spend a good deal of this blog trying to disambiguate writing terms, that’s impossible with this topic. That’s the basic premise of this post. We are talking relationships, which means there are no rules beyond what the people in the relationship decide.

Alpha and Beta readers – it’s important to know what they are and are not

Let’s get the word-origin part out of the way. These are software industry terms that migrated over to writing communities. It looks like the terms first came into common use in the world of fan fic, then migrated to other online writer communities from there.

I got that far into my research and asked myself, “seriously, who gives a fuck?” I’m like a dog with ADD who saw a bright shiny object tied to a squirrel when it comes to research.

Suffice it to say, the terms were adopted from the software industry, where they have the following meanings:

Alpha Test:          The program is complete (or very nearly complete), but may have known limitations and problems. Testing is performed by software engineers for the purpose of finding and fixing critical issues.

Beta Test:   The program is complete and polished and needs to be tested in real-world conditions by real users to see how if functions in an uncontrolled environment. Testing is usually performed by customers, who are getting a free copy of the program in exchange for testing.

For some reason, the term beta reader is in extremely common use in writing communities. In some circles, it’s even become an umbrella term that encompasses everything in our ABCs. Alpha reader is less common, and many “betas” are really alphas.

Honesty, a foundation of any good relationship

Glancing at those definitions shows how quickly alpha/beta relationships can go south. Particularly with most people calling all critique work “beta reading.” If you have a rough draft that you spellchecked once, it’s perfectly reasonable to want another set of eyes on the manuscript. You’re looking for an alpha. If you’ve revised and polished the crap out of your manuscript, and you want to know what someone who bought it at a local bookstore would think of the novel, you’re looking for a beta. There is nothing wrong with wanting either of those things—or both, from different people at different times. But both you and your partner need to be clear about what you’re looking for.

I am now going to make this the most important blog post on the subject of ABC relationships in the history of the interwebs. I’m going to say it again, and this time it will be bold, in all caps, and italicized:


Sitting down to beta read for someone who really wants (or needs) an alpha is not fun. It’s like to showing up to take someone to a church picnic and having your date hand you a ball gag, saying, “Mama don’t do safewords, slave.”

It doesn’t matter what the terms mean. The non-online writing world still, generally, doesn’t use them, and writers got along just fine without them for a thousand years. F. Scott Fitzgerald never called himself Ernest Hemingway’s “beta reader,” and I can’t see a single reference in James Joyce’s papers about Hemingway being his “critique partner.” [In fact, that may be the only thing Joyce didn’t call Hemingway at some point.] Alpha and beta reader are semi-useful labels that have little meaning beyond that which we give them.

That, and it’s a useful answer to your daughter’s questions when you leave a folder open on the computer containing about a thousand emails with a woman she’s never heard of before.


I’ll get into how to pick ABC partners and trying to make the most of your ABC relationship in a future post (because I foreshadow future posts on this blog more than the witches foreshadow the events in Macbeth). In terms of what alpha and beta readers are, though, we can use two sets of definitions:

Set One: If you read it somewhere and assume the person is using the term correctly, or want to sound all hip and writerly in a conversation and use the terms yourself with someone other than an ABC partner:

Alphas get the MS when it still has problems and needs to be edited, maybe even before it’s finished; and

Betas get something that is as close to publishable as you can possibly make it, usually with the help of an alpha or two. Alphas should be other writers, Betas are usually better betas if they are nonwriter avid readers…


Set Two: For our own purposes, we don’t give a damn what the definitions are, since they’re likely not exactly the same as your prospective ABC partners anyway. Just make sure you and they have an honest discussion about what you’re looking for and what you’re willing to offer.

Then what the hell is a CP?

This is what I call everyone who isn’t a beta. If I’m sharing work with another writer, and reading and commenting on that writer’s work in return, I call that person a critique partner. Sometimes they function more like betas, sometimes more like alphas. If the relationship really clicks, it can go from beta to alpha to alpha on steroids (to your daughters wondering if they have an estranged sister who lives in Oregon or you are shopping for a Nigerian mail order bride).

How you’ll use a CP can depend on so many variables, not the least of which is how your write and edit, that it’s likely to change project-to-project even between the same two participants. I rewrite so much during the writing process itself that I would be wasting both of our time if I sent Chapter One to a CP the minute it was done. But I’ve had CPs who send work to me that way, and I don’t mind at all. I’ve sent standalone rewritten paragraphs at times, and asked/answered more than a few “how do you think I should handle” questions about things that haven’t even been written yet. When you get to the “bouncing ideas off each other” stage, neither alpha nor beta reader is an apt title. There isn’t anything to read yet.

That’s why I call any other writer I share work with a critique partner. And I mean it; particularly when the relationship evolves to the point that emphasizes “partner” over the word “critique.”


Bonus Materials and quiz:

What follows is a verbatim (including misspellings) transcript of a letter from Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald asked for feedback on his novel Tender is the Night, although it had already been published. Read the correspondence, then answer the following question:

Based on the above facts and what Hemingway said in his letter, what was Hemingway to Fitzgerald:

A) An alpha reader

B) A beta reader

C) A critique partner

D) Fuck this quiz, lets get drunk.


Key West
28 May 1934

Dear Scott:

I liked it and I didn’t. It started off with that marvelous description of Sara and Gerald (goddamn it Dos took it with him so I can’t refer to it. So if I make any mistakes—). Then you started fooling with them, making them come from things they didn’t come from, changing them into other people and you can’t do that, Scott. If you take real people and write about them you cannot give them other parents than they have (they are made by their parents and what happens to them) you cannot make them do anything they would not do. You can take you or me or Zelda or Pauline or Hadley or Sara or Gerald but you have to keep them the same and you can only make them do what they would do. You can’t make one be another. Invention is the finest thing but you cannot invent anything that would not actually happen. 

That is what we are supposed to do when we are at our best—make it all up—but make it up so truly that later it will happen that way. 

Goddamn it you took liberties with peoples’ pasts and futures that produced not people but damned marvellously faked case histories. You, who can write better than anybody can, who are so lousy with talent that you have to—the hell with it. Scott for gods sake write and write truly no matter who or what it hurts but do not make these silly compromises. You could write a fine book about Gerald and Sara for instance if you knew enough about them and they would not have any feeling, except passing, if it were true. 

There were wonderful places and nobody else nor none of the boys can write a good one half as good reading as one that doesn’t come out by you, but you cheated too damned much in this one. And you don’t need to. 

In the first place I’ve always claimed that you can’t think. All right, we’ll admit you can think. But say you couldn’t think; then you ought to write, invent, out of what you know and keep the people’s antecedants straight. Second place, a long time ago you stopped listening except to the answers to your own questions. You had good stuff in too that it didn’t need. That’s what dries a writer up (we all dry up. That’s no insult to you in person) not listening. That is where it all comes from. Seeing, listening. You see well enough. But you stop listening. 

It’s a lot better than I say. But it’s not as good as you can do. 

You can study Clausewitz in the field and economics and psychology and nothing else will do you any bloody good once you are writing. We are like lousy damned acrobats but we make some mighty fine jumps, bo, and they have all these other acrobats that won’t jump. 

For Christ sake write and don’t worry about what the boys will say nor whether it will be a masterpiece nor what. I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket. You feel you have to publish crap to make money to live and let live. All write but if you write enough and as well as you can there will be the same amount of masterpiece material (as we say at Yale). You can’t think well enough to sit down and write a deliberate masterpiece and if you could get rid of Seldes and those guys that nearly ruined you and turn them out as well as you can and let the spectators yell when it is good and hoot when it is not you would be all right. 

Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it—don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist—but don’t think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you. 

About this time I wouldn’t blame you if you gave me a burst. Jesus it’s marvellous to tell other people how to write, live, die etc.

I’d like to see you and talk about things with you sober. You were so damned stinking in N.Y. we didn’t get anywhere. You see, Bo, you’re not a tragic character. Neither am I. All we are is writers and what we should do is write. Of all people on earth you needed discipline in your work and instead you marry someone who is jealous of your work, wants to compete with you and ruins you. It’s not as simple as that and I thought Zelda was crazy the first time I met her and you complicated it even more by being in love with her and, of course you’re a rummy. But you’re no more of a rummy than Joyce is and most good writers are. But Scott, good writers always come back. Always. You are twice as good now as you were at the time you think you were so marvellous. You know I never thought so much of Gatsby at the time. You can write twice as well now as you ever could. All you need to do is write truly and not care about what the fate of it is. 

Go on and write. 

Anyway I’m damned fond of you and I’d like to have a chance to talk sometimes. We had good times talking. Remember that guy we went out to see dying in Neuilly? He was down here this winter. Damned nice guy Canby Chambers. Saw a lot of Dos. He’s in good shape now and he was plenty sick this time last year. How is Scotty and Zelda? Pauline sends her love. We’re all fine. She’s going up to Piggott for a couple of weeks with Patrick. Then bring Bumby back. We have a fine boat. Am going good on a very long story. Hard one to write. 

Always your friend


[Written on envelope: What about The Sun also and the movies? Any chance? I dint put in about the good parts. You know how good they are. You’re write about the book of stories. I wanted to hold it for more. That last one I had in Cosmopolitan would have made it.]

The Post in Which I Answer the Question: “What’s With all the F-Bombs?”

I’ll start with the cliché about the leopard not being able to change its spots. That doesn’t have anything to do with my frequent use of profanity. It explains why, when I sat down to say “here’s why I like to occasionally say ‘fuck,’” I lost an hour of my day reading fascinating articles written by linguistic anthropologists about that and similar words.

None of which have a fucking thing to do with the topic at hand.



The F-Bomb and Me, a personal history

I have two uncles on my dad’s side of the family. One was a contractor, the other was the bartender at the Irish Center in San Francisco. Both were Irish immigrants and, as far as I know, neither ever uttered a sentence that didn’t contain at least one F-bomb. That doesn’t explain anything about my use of such language, it just shows how I was introduced to it – probably in conjunction with my initial language acquisition skills as a toddler. “Fuck,” “fucking,” “motherfucker,” and “cocksucker” were what my uncles said instead of “um.” If they otherwise would have said “um” a lot.

[They also got me drunk the first (several) times and I tend to slip into an Irish brogue if I’ve had too many, though that has nothing to do with the topic at hand.]

My parents, on the other hand, do not cuss. I don’t remember having a conversation with my parents about my uncles’ version of “um,” although I’m certain I did. I would remember being sent home from kindergarten for asking some cocksucker to pass me a motherfucking crayon, and that did not happen.

Some years later, when I was around ten, my friends and I discovered those words anew, peppering our sentences with them as liberally as my uncles ever had. Of course, that was only when we were alone, unobserved, and certainly far, far away from our parents’ ears. I’m sure we did it to impress each other and younger kids, to feel “grownup,” and for a host of other reasons that tend to evaporate after dropping ten or twenty thousand F-bombs.

By the time I was in high school, in the right company and circumstances, I wouldn’t hesitate to use profanities for emphasis. For the next ten years or so, those lines were primarily generational. I seldom swore in front of someone my parents’ age, but had no problem doing it with someone my age or younger. Circumstances matter, too. I wouldn’t drop an F-bomb in front of anyone if I was, say, in a church, but I’d probably be willing to say “shit” on a racquetball court or by a campfire even if my companion were Mother Teresa.

This all seemed natural, and I never gave it any thought. Then I had kids.

Suddenly, I felt an overwhelming need to censor my language in front of not only members of my parents’ generation, but also my children’s. Which is ironic as hell, because I will never have as many conversations with anyone about the subjects of shit and piss as I’d had with each of my children by the time they were three. Granted, the vernacular was different (“potty,” “tinkle,” “poopie,” etc.), but shit is shit, whatever you call it, and we were literally talking shit to each other several times a day for years.

Cussing at the Office

Around the same time I was constantly talking shit, er, poopies, with my kids, I was also earning my chops in my professional life, where I was introduced to cussing at a different level. First, becoming a “grownup” meant that people ten, twenty, or forty years older than me were now my peers. I was practicing law, which meant I had to at least pretend I was the peer of every opposing lawyer I dealt with, even if he (and the ones that old were all “he”) was forty years my senior. Being the frustrated linguist I really am, that’s also when I started paying close attention to how people were using swear words. I noticed that people who cussed in this context fell into three groups:

  • Buster Blowhard. He’s one tough motherfucker. You know this, because he is constantly saying what a tough motherfucker he is. He might as well have “Super Insecure and Overcompensating” tattooed on his forehead. I say “he” because, while I am absolutely certain there are female versions of this, I have not done business with one yet.
  • The Casual Cusser. Talks to everyone (or at least most people) like they’re all in a high school gym together. Takes no offense to profanity also assumes you don’t give a shit. Doesn’t really put any thought into it.
  • The Strategic Swearer. Appears not to use any profane or inappropriate language whatsoever. When it’s time to call bullshit on something, the word “bullshit” silences a room.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise to any who reads this blog that, among my friends, I am a Casual Cusser. Professionally, though, I am squarely in the Strategic Swearer group. So much so, that most people who only know me professionally may be inclined to think I don’t swear at all.

While I’m a Casual Cusser much of the time, I have to admit, the Strategic Swearer is BY FAR more fun. Swearing is all about how much power we give words, and being the Strategic Swearer lets me manipulate them like a power-mad comic book villain.

My favorite example is a deal I’d worked on for six months, never venturing south of the word “darned.” A new lawyer came onboard with the other side and started trying to jerk things around. After three days of this, I stood up and told him he was “pissing all over everything we had worked on for six months.” Then I told his client to contact my client directly if he was more interested in doing the deal than playing “bullshit games.”

Before the meeting, I told my client “start getting ready to walk out if I say the word ‘piss.’ If I say the word ‘shit,’ stand up immediately. Don’t talk to anyone.” He did, we left, and before the elevator arrived to take us downstairs, the deal was back on track. If I’d been saying “shit” this and “fuck” that for the prior six months, those words would have had almost no power. Coming as they did, though, they were powerful enough to make the person representing the other company go – quite literally – pale.

As I watched the blood drain from his face, all I could think was, If I said he was tinkling on the deal and they were playing games with cow poopies, IT WOULD HAVE MEANT THE SAME FUCKING THING.

Where That Power Comes From

It would have meant the same thing — and it wouldn’t have at the same time. That’s the amazing thing about swear words.  Their context is their meaning. The meaning of any given swear word happens somewhere between: (1) the speaker’s use of the word and (2) the listener’s feelings (a) about the word generally and (b) how the word is being used at that moment. As writers, we can look at it as the ultimate exercise in usage and cognitive construction, because the true meaning to the listener does not have one fucking thing to do with the literal word we are using.

You can see the same thing on the opposite end of the spectrum, too. We have a huge Mormon population where I live. They never (ever, which is to say, at least not when another Mormon is around) say the word “fuck.” Which makes sense, because Mormons are notoriously proper, well-mannered people (particularly so if another Mormon is around). Go watch a Mormon basketball game – don’t ask me, basketball seems to be a significant aspect of their religion. You’ll hear the word “screw” and “screwed” thrown around with abandon. And it’s being used exactly when and how the F-bomb would be dropped by someone comfortable with dropping F-bombs.

They say a word that means the same thing. They say it in the same context. They say it with the same intent. The only fucking difference is the significance they have subjectively given that word as far as it’s “badness.” Fuck is bad because – and only because – they have decided it’s bad. Screw, which fucking means “Fuck,” for fuck’s sake, is fine, because — well, it’s not “Fuck.”

And I don’t mean to pick on Mormons, here. They’re just a convenient example. The same is true for all of us. Or, should I say, Every Fucking One Of Us. There’s nothing wrong with it. We have the friends we tell “I’ve gotta take a piss” and the friends we tell we “need to go to the bathroom.” There are people we ask for the “restroom,” and we may tell a three year old we “need to go potty.” Almost all of which we do without thinking twice – it’s a natural part of our language.

So, why do I cuss on this blog?

Because you’re the friends I tell “I’ve gotta take a piss.” 🙂

Properly used (if that isn’t an oxymoron in this context), I think swear words are a more effective way of placing emphasis than the main alternative, an exclamation point. For me, they are also the more honest – this blog is about the most unfiltered (and unrefined) version of my “voice” imaginable. This is what I sound like in my internal monologue and when I am speaking to my closest friends. In other contexts, there is some form of filter – usually so ingrained it’s subconscious – making decisions about the propriety or utility of those words.

Which is one of the reasons I think I love blogging so much. In here, I don’t have to give a fuck.

The Innate Talent Question: Thus Spake Überdouche

Well, the Talent Wars have flared up again. The fight over how much “talent” is a factor in a person’s writing ability almost invariably gets ugly. And, if you scratch the surface, it’s pretty easy to see why.

I try not to be a complete asshole when interacting with people, whether on the internet or standing in line at the airport. It’s usually not all that hard. When this issue comes up, though, I have to consciously restrain myself. If we were in a bar, there would be a fight. This argument flat out pisses me off.

There’s a legitimate reason this pisses me off, and it goes beyond the standard, frustrating internet discourse loop:

Opinion –> Counter Opinion, with supporting evidence –> Opinion stated more strongly –> I’m not making this up, here’s a journal article with metadata –> Opinion stated angrily –> Look, there’s no reason to get angry –> Name calling.

On this issue, it’s all I can do to stop from being the angry, name calling part of that equation. This is unlike most internet shitstorms — I couldn’t give a fuck whether you outline or not, as long as you don’t state inaccurate facts or tell other people they are doing it wrong. On this issue, I am personally invested in the very real impact of the discourse itself. Not because I lay awake at night questioning my own talents (I sleep just fine, not giving a damn whether I have any talent). But there are some kids (which I mean literally, high school aged) who I coach and mentor and care about, who do worry about that kind of shit. Often, kids with emotional issues (way beyond the issues we all have at that age) and family situations that are dicey as shit. Not uncommonly, having spent a lifetime being told they’re worthless pieces of shit.

Nobody else will ever be able to convince them they are wonderful, not worthless. They have to decide that for themselves. And I’ve seen it happen – almost miraculously, and well over half the time. A bit of encouragement leads to a shred of success that leads to increased interest that results in a bit more success, more work/practice, more success, until the kid finally looks around and thinks “Holy shit, I’m one of the best people in the state, region, or country at something. I’m GOOD at this.”

Want to make sure that kid stays down? Tell her at the outset that whether she can be good at something is determined by some cosmic special sauce she either was or wasn’t born with. Because if there’s anything the parents, school system, sometime even the foster care and or juvenile justice system have taught a lot of these kids, it’s that they were filled with useless shit when everyone else was getting special sauce. They’ve never had success at anything, so that seems true. Why bother?

The hardest thing to get those kids to do is realize that they can control outcomes. That they can use dedication and learned skills — even their own horrific experiences — to compensate for other kids’ supportive backgrounds, loving parents, and douchey prep school blazers. I can think of no better way to keep a kid like that down than to tell her “it’s not up to you, it just depends on whether you got sprinkled with magic faery dust when your were born.” Or wherever the fuck “talent” is supposed to come from.

There’s another, less horrible, but almost laughably arrogant, statement implied in that as well. Let’s see, you’re a member of a writing community and are working on a novel and/or have completed other novels. You believe that only certain people have been graced by the cosmos with a limited-edition gift that gives them a (quite literally) God-given right to be better writers than lesser humans who merely work hard to learn and hone their craft. Gee, any chance you think you fit into that category of cosmically blessed, divinely graced, faerie-dust sprinkled literary Übermensch?


Yea, you can go fuck yourself about that. I’ll take a kid who was told she was mentally retarded for the first nine years of her life. The kid who was on so many medications, she was basically stoned from kindergarten through middle school. Straighten that kid’s meds out, give her a decent work ethic, and I’ll take her over you and your “talent” every fucking day.  Überdouche.

So, is talent a factor?

Meh. Maybe, at the extreme top levels of performance. As is so often the case with these things, the real answer is: Who gives a fuck? There could be some brain chemistry going on that would separate the Nobel-level writers from, say, Vonnegut. Maybe even separating Vonnegut from Elmore Leonard. The latter being such a nuts-and-bolts writer, coming up through the magazine then pulp/genre writing career path, that I doubt he’d attribute his success (or even the brilliance of some of his writing, which, at times, is brilliant) to any kind of cosmic special sauce. I know scores of people who actually write better than Dan Brown, though he does a good job of coming up with a story. The same is true of Stephanie Meyer. If “talent” is really a thing that results in great writing, I wouldn’t say either of them got much. But they both came up with great stories to tell that people wanted to read. Which is what makes them gazillionaire writers.

There are a lot of factors, and how each plays into a given person’s success is going to vary. An encouraging childhood with a lot of practice is not an option for a kid with illiterate and abusive parents, so that kid’s level of interest will have to be far greater to land her even close to the same place. But, one way or the other, some cocktail of several issues is going to be at play:

  • Practice — Whatever you want to call it. Dedication, hard work, the willingness to study and improve, writing a million words or for ten thousand hours or whatever.
  • Interest level — Someone obsessed with a subject at age five is probably going to be one of the world’s leading experts on that thing if she remains obsessed until she’s 50.
  • Childhood and adolescent environment – this, more than anything, is what I think gets mislabeled as “talent.” There are also mountains of data on this, since we standardize test the hell out of kids. Is there a single factor that will heavily influence how well kids do on the English portion of the SAT, ACT, or any of the elementary basic skills tests? Hells yes — their parents’ median income. That predicts the outcome on standardized tests so well, we could probably save ourselves a lot of time and money and just score kids based on their parents’ W-2s.  In a trial to calculate the damages (lost future earnings) of a child who was killed or permanently impaired, trial economists on both sides rely primarily on one consideration. The parents’ education levels. Not their income, jobs, criminal histories, color, whether they’re married or divorced, or anything else. The parent’s education level correlates to future earnings even more than the kids own grades and test scores. That’s how much childhood environment eventually plays out (statistically) in your future.
  • Opportunity/luck — right place/right time, or whatever you want to call it. I have an accountant friend who was assigned Microsoft as a client at his first job at an accounting firm (because Microsoft was a ten employee company and did not have a full time accountant yet). A friend from college was a limo driver in Vegas with an idea for a TV show about Crime Scene Investigation units, who lucked into a chance to pitch his idea to Jerry Bruckheimer. In big and little/good and bad ways, I don’t think this can be ignored as a factor.

Those are all things that happen before you get to the idea that someone is somehow predestined to be wonderful at something or imbued by God or Zeus or whoever with some magical gift. Since syntaptic connections in our brains are ridiculously flexible during the first 5 years of life, I think a lot of what we are calling “innate” is anything but. I don’t have a special debate gene, but I have a ten-year-old daughter whose favorite weekend activity is going with me to judge debate rounds, which she’s been doing since she was four. If Joyce Carol Oats was extremely close to her father and he was a Volleyball coach/former captain of the Olympic Volleyball Team, you think she’d have won the National Book Award for Them, or do you think she’d be one of the great women’s volleyball coaches of all time?

  • Talent? Meh. Fine. There is probably some ideal combination of chemical and environmental factors that would make someone who worked at least as hard as someone else, and who had at least as much exposure and support, and who had at least as much luck marginally better. To some people, anyway. Since writing is subjective, the differences are bound to cut both ways with some readers. So, even then, it’s going to be a matter of opinion whether that “talent” thing went with writer A or writer B. Which shows how unbelievably stupid the whole argument is in the first place.

The Bottom Line

1)      Tell a kid who appears to suck at everything she does when she’s 14 (because she sucks at everything she does when she’s 14) that she needs cosmic special sauce to be good at something, I may well punch you in the throat.

2)      If you want to walk around believing you have been imbued by the cosmos with special writing sauce, go for it. But it’s probably best to keep that a secret. By which I mean, we don’t really want to hear about it. Like you probably don’t want to hear how much of a douche I think you are.

3)      When someone shows me a writer who has diligently worked to hone her craft for ten years who cannot rise to the literary level of Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer (I’m talking literary level, not commercial success), I’ll worry about talent. Until then, I am going to keep reading, writing, and reading.

Brief update to add a new source:

Just tagging this on, because researching my next post (the impact of the type of music you listen to on tasks like editing), I ran across another article basically debunking the “talent” myth. It’s from American Psychologist, and is available free, courtesy of M.I.T.:


There’s More to Writing Members of the Opposite Sex Than a Name and a Haircut

Growing up with three sisters and being the primary parent to four daughters, I have a passing familiarity with females. My closest friend over the past 30 years (since high school) is also a woman. Shit, even my dog/constant companion is female; as is our cat. We also have a frog. I don’t know whether it’s male or female, but some species of frog have been known to change their gender. In my house, if you had a choice, you’d probably be a woman.

Having spent my life treading water in an ocean of estrogen, I think I write women reasonably well. Being a huge fan of women helps. Seriously, if there is a fandom for womanhood, I’m in.

The popular, and politically correct, thing to say about gender is that “people are people, and it makes no difference.” That’s a lovely thought, but it’s also complete bullshit. Straight men are different from straight women, gay men, gay women, genderqueer men and women, and pretty much everything except other straight men. And everyone in each group I mentioned is different from every other group I mentioned, too. If you want to write from a gender and/or sexual (or asexual) orientation other than the one you inhabit, I earnestly believe step one is: There are differences, deal with it.

You can’t write a good woman if you’re a man or a good man if you’re a woman by acting as though they aren’t different and just attach a female gender designation to a generic character and expect her to be believable. You can’t include LBGTQ characters in your manuscript by taking a heterosexual couple and gender switching one of the people. Most gay male couples I know are more like hetero couples than they are gay female couples. The European Union spent ten billion dollars building the Large Hadron Collider to study shit that less complicated than some of the lesbian couple dynamics I’ve been witness to. So, no, you can’t just rename Jim “Jane” and call it a day. Trying to address the LBGTQ issues this topic implicates would expand it way beyond a blog post, so I’m going to drop that issue here, except to say that the same general principals apply.

I hate gender binaries, but the fact remains — there are generalized differences in the way women and men react to things. We process somewhat differently. That doesn’t define who a female character is, but (like education level, the stability of a character’s childhood home, and a billion other things) it colors how the character will act and react to things. Ignoring those differences is not healthy or helpful. It might be nice to claim to be gender blind, but it’s also stupid.

It’s not writing related, but the example that leaps to mind comes from the time I was a college debate coach. Understanding the difference between the way you motivate (most) 20 year-old men vs. motivating (most) 20 year-old women was a watershed in our success. Embracing, rather than pretending to ignore, that difference is critical.

The problem is, just recognizing the differences and basing characters on them leads to shitty character development at best, and harmful stereotypes and tropes at worst. The differences between men and women don’t define men or women as individuals. Which brings us to step two: Those differences don’t define a character. Gender differences constitute one aspect of the lens through which she views things or reacts to things. It exists alongside her upbringing (abusive alcoholic parents vs. Leave it to Beaver) and education level (junior high dropouts tend to view things and react to situations differently from – and be in different situations than – people with doctorates). There are a thousand things that make up a character’s perspective. Gender is an important one, certainly, but it is still just one of many.

The funny thing about this subject is that the “trick,” if there is one, is a nuanced version of “ignore step one.” Or, more accurately, embrace it at a very deep level. There are two standard pieces of advice on this subject, and they both suck. The first is to just write good characters and not worry about whether they are male or female. That, to me, is equivalent to saying “just write good characters and don’t worry about whether they are eight, fifty, or eighty years old” or “people are people, so it doesn’t matter whether your character is devoutly religious” or something like that. The second piece of bad advice is to study the people you are trying to write – in my case study women. I understand where this advice comes from. If I want to write about a beat cop, you can bet I’m going on ridealongs with the police as often as they’ll let me. But this is one of the rare instances where studying what you write is a mistake. At least, going outside yourself to study it.


So here’s Step three: Come to terms with the fact that all people are cocktails of femininity and masculinity. It’s not an on/off switch between men and women, it’s a question of addressing each character’s unique blend. 

Women tend to be higher on the femininity, but that’s not always the case. In my manuscript, for example, my protagonist is a fairly feminine guy (feminine, not effeminate). He is extremely close to his sister, who is fairly masculine for a woman, and certainly more masculine than he is. She’s still quite female, but not particularly feminine in her behavior or the way she processes information. I didn’t spend a year structuring my manuscript that way so I could prove a point in a blog post – That’s just the way those characters came out when I wrote them eighteen months ago.

So if I were going to try to give a piece of functional advice, it would be to start by realizing we’re talking about different ratios of Masc/Fem, and both are present in every person. Instead of looking outward at women as a starting point, if you’re a man, look at yourself and evaluate your feminine qualities. They are the same ones that are present in women, they’re just there in different proportions. They’re probably easier to spot when you realize you share the same characteristics, just (possibly) a different blend. When looking outward at women, pay attention to what you probably consider masculine traits. Again, they’re all there, just in different proportions. Then mix and match those traits in all of your characters. Each character is a different cocktail of those traits. There is no “woman” character and there is no “man” character. And the easiest place to find and understand those characteristics is in yourself, because all of those traits are in all of us.

Passives Should Usually be Avoided Part Two (Or: How to effectively sprinkle zombies through your writing)

I already dedicated one post to my jihad against grammatical absolutism. The “Rules of Writing” Should be Called (and treated like) the “Guidelines for Editing” Once again, with respect to active versus passive voice, Messrs. Strunk & White are among the standard-bearers Once again, the general concept has been expanded to dogma. Usually preferring active construction over passive is a worthwhile editing tip, along the lines of looking for excessive, well, anything. But that’s about it.

According to Strunk & White, “Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice.” Gee, you mean sentences like that fucking sentence about passive voice? Let’s run a few tests from the last post.

  • Is the verb being done to the subject? The subject is “sentence” the verb is “made.” Oops. Hey Mr. White, you wrote the fucking sentence telling us not to use passive voice in passive voice. Like I said before, if you can identify the subject and verb, you can always identify passive, so that proves it. For a quick refresher, though, let’s run through the other tests.
  • Is the Noun followed by a prepositional phrase? Hey, look at that. The prepositional phrase “by substituting” follows the noun “sentence.” The preposition “by” and verb “substituting” creates a prepositional phrase. Which means the sentence is passive.
  • Is there a conjugation of “to be” followed by a past participle? Since “can be” is a variation on “to be” and “made” is a past participle – ding, ding, ding.
  • Did zombies write the sentence? “Many a . . . sentence can be made lively by zombies!” Yay zombies. Boo Elements of Style.

This example does a great job of showing how hypocritical (or, more likely, clueless) Strunk & White could be about grammar. The sentence does a great job of showing why we should avoid passive voice. It does so by: (a) using passive voice; and (b) sucking so much. Specifically, sucking so much in the precise way passive voice can (but doesn’t always) make our sentences suck.

The sentence has been treated (hehe) as a call to action, challenging writers to make their prose more vigorous and engaging. Something you can only do if you ignore what they actually wrote.

What they wrote:      “Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice.” (teh suk)

What they meant:      “Active voice makes your writing livelier.” (less teh suk)

By sucking, Elements manages to show us the reason we should avoid passive voice. Usually (but not always) passive sentences are less engaging. This, like the adverb advice and every other “Rule” about writing is worth understanding. Not because passives are inherently bad, but because they have about a 50/50 chance of making our writing less engaging.


Bad passives should be avoided.

How do we know which passives are bad? We’re the writers, it’s our world, they are our words, so it’s up to us. I like finding all of the passives in my writing, but I don’t expect to get rid of them all when I find them. Typically, I look for alternatives. In the case of the title of this tip, the obvious alternative is “Writers should avoid bad passives.” Meh, it’s a little better, so I would probably make that change (without any great feeling of accomplishment upon having done so). Sometimes, though, I find sentences that are watered down by passive voice, and changing it to active improves the sentence enormously. Changing an event from passive to active often changes the tone from one that reports to the reader about what happened (“The protesters were excited by the speaker. The embassy was attacked”) to one that shows the scene more vividly (“The speaker worked the protestors into a frenzy. They attacked the embassy.”).

There is no “Rule” for this. If I were to try to formulate one, it would be Passives are worth finding because there’s a coin-flip chance the sentence could be better. Unless you write with a lot of passives, in which case they are even more worth finding because there’s an even better chance the sentences could be better. Grammar check is your friend. If you honestly wonder whether you overuse passives, look at your readability statistics (most word processing programs have them built in, and the Google machine can send you to dozens of free sites where you can paste in pages to do a quick test). If you’re over five percent, you should do some serious thinking about your writing. Less than that, you’re probably doing just fine. That’s just a blood pressure check, though, and a final manuscript needs an angiogram. Grammar check misses passives on a regular basis. You need to be able to identify them for yourself, because (particularly in longer or more grammatically complex sentences) a fair number just slip through the cracks.

Good passives should be hugged (by zombies).

Thanks to grammar check, I know that, statistically, my fiction runs between two and three percent passives. That’s a good range for me because, at that level, I’m probably not using passive voice in sentences where it is not clearly the best tool for the job. Contrary to what my college professor, a law school professor, scores of people giving grammar advice on the interwebs, and Strunk & White believe, there are plenty of situations in which the passive voice is best. The first paragraph of my manuscript contains this double-dose of passive voice: “Feeling as though he was being watched, which he preferred to admitting he was being ignored, Nick tried look casual.” Passive? You bet, times two. That’s the least of its problems. Not only is it passive deux foix, the whole thing is nothing but exposition about my protagonist’s feelings and thoughts. Something else I do very little of in my writing. For good measure, I split an infinitive.

In that introductory paragraph, I’m teasing out why Nick is there and what he’s waiting for. It’s all explained, through dialogue, about 200 words later. For that particular paragraph, though, I wanted to leave a bit of a question mark about who was watching (or ignoring) Nick. I did this largely to make the “them” more of an abstract concept (which, to Nick, “they” were at the time) and less of a good-natured guy named Jim (which, “they” turn out to be). I want the putative watcher(s) to be as abstract as possible. Because active voice usually helps by making our writing more concrete and direct, it works against that goal.

There are a number of situations in which passive voice may be the better choice. (Alliteration, yay. We should all march around chanting that). Those times include instances in which:

  • The actor shall remain nameless. Maybe you don’t know who the actor is (“The book was printed in 1614”), the actor is too broad to try to identify (“…has been proven by hundreds of studies”) or you want to keep the mystery going (“we were being watched”).
  • The action is the focus of the sentence. Sometimes, passive voice can be used (by zombies) to place emphasis on the verb, downplaying the relative importance of the subject. “All men are created equal” may be sexist, but it’s not bad writing. Saying “the experiment was conducted in strict conformance with ethical standards” shifts the emphasis from the subject (the experiment) to the manner in which it was conducted, which is the focus of the sentence. If the answer to the question “Where’s mom?” is “She was kidnapped,” you are not lacking for clarity, action, or anything else. “Three men in a gray sedan kidnapped her,” provides more information, makes the sentence active, and changes the emphasis from “kidnapped” to the three men.
  • Put your best foot forward. If your subject is not the actor, but you still want to keep as much focus on the subject as possible, it helps to identify it first. “Clouds are formed by evaporation” places the emphasis on clouds. “Evaporation forms clouds” says the same thing, and does it actively, but it also changes the focus of the sentence from clouds to evaporation. This is the inverse of “action is the focus of the sentence” and can sometimes yield the opposite result based on whatever else is happening in the sentence. Hence absolute rules being a bad idea.
  • If you’re Richard Nixon’s press secretary or you’re withdrawing your nomination of Zoe Baird to be Attorney General. In some instances, the grammatical double-speak that is the hallmark of passive voice can be your friend. “Mistakes were made (by zombies)” is easier to say than “My boss, the President, really screwed the pooch on this one.” My favorite personal example comes from this group. I had a legal research and writing professor who was adamant about passive voice. He would not accept the argument that “Sam Watson was killed” was better than saying “My client killed Sam Watson.” A man like that needs to be in academia. In the real world, his adherence to the prohibition against the use of passives is called malpractice.
  • The nature of what you’re writing is instructive. Meaning, you are writing a passage or blog post or something else that provides instruction. “When you finish doing X, Y will start happening” is a natural formulation in instructive writing. Most of what I am advising here is oriented toward fiction writing. The advice is probably worth keeping in mind, but sometimes constructions that avoid the passive in instructional writing are so convoluted, they make things way worse than a zombie ever will.

A sensible approach to passive voice makes the ability to identify passives a valuable tool. Saying that passives have no place in our writing just makes you sound like a tool. It’s ironic that I feel compelled to defend something that only shows up in one of every forty sentences or clauses of prose I write, but the idea it needs to be avoided altogether (by zombies) compels it. Primarily because we should get rid of passives most of the time. Knowing the rule and being able to spot them facilitates that. More importantly, it empowers us to look at a sentence and, with the full understanding it’s passive as hell, decide, yea, the zombies can keep this one.

Passives Should Usually be Avoided Part One (Or: What World War Z taught me about passive voice)

I had a professor once who thought (a) passive voice happened any time you have a conjugation of “to be” at work in a sentence; and (b) passive voice must always be avoided (hehe). He was wrong on both counts, and it took me years to overcome the trauma. We’ll start with a rule (whether something is passive or not is a yes or no question, so there’s no problem having a “rule” about that). Then we’ll talk about applying the general idea (not a rule) that passives usually (i.e., sometimes but not always) weaken our writing.

A)  The Basic Rule

Passive voice is a simple, but often misunderstood, concept. We’ll start with the simple part. In passive sentences, the subject of the sentence is the recipient of the action in the sentence. That’s it. You do not need a Spymaster Deluxe Decoder Ring to work your way around this concept. If you can figure out what the subject of a sentence is, you can figure out whether the sentence is passive or active.

If you can’t figure out what the subject is, don’t worry. That’s not rocket surgery, either. The subject of the sentence is, generally, the thing the sentence is about or the thing that does the action. If it’s the thing that does the action, the sentence isn’t going to be passive, so the problem solves itself. We only need to worry when the sentence is about a thing that isn’t the actor. This also applies to clauses, but I am going to just address sentence structure to keep this simple.

We ate pie.           We are the subject of the sentence. We did the verb (ate). Yay us. This sentence is not passive.

The pie was eaten. The pie is now the subject of the sentence. The pie didn’t do shit. It just sat there being eaten. Boo pie. This sentence is passive.

So, the basic rule is simple. Look at the verb and ask whether the verb is being done by or to the subject. If it is done by the subject, you’re golden. If it is done to the subject, the sentence is passive. Does the fact that it is passive mean it sucks? Not necessarily. But we’ll deal with that in a bit.

B)    Same Rule, Just a Little Less Basic

If all sentences were three or four words long with one noun and one verb, the issue would be closed there. We’d sound like 1950s Hollywood stereotype cave men and Native Americans, but we’d be done worrying about passive voice. Assuming we want our narratives to be slightly more nuanced than “Kate make fire,” we need to take a couple more issues into account.

The pie was eaten by us. Now we have two nouns (well, OK, a noun and a pronoun). Now there’s a noun (us) doing the eating, so the sentence can be active, right? Not quite. The “by us” part is a prepositional phrase (“by” is the preposition). But hang with me here, because if you just learn one more little rule, you’ll have your black belt in passive kicking. Or at least your fourth-degree brown belt (not to be confused with a fifty shades of grey belt, which is a whole other thing).

Whenever a passive sentence has an agent doing the verb, that agent is going to show up in a prepositional phrase. So there will be a preposition (by, from, after, etc.) followed by a noun or pronoun. They aren’t the subject of the sentence, they modify the verb that is doing something to the subject of the sentence.

If you grew up speaking English, you don’t think twice about prepositions. If you are learning English as a second language, you probably think preposition is a four-letter word (or a twenty-one-letter word like “big-fucking-pain-in-my-ass”). From a linguistic point of view, they are amazing little buggers with an amazing history, but today I am focusing on the fact that they are a pain in the ass to identify.

In passive sentences, the prepositional phrases most often used are: by, for, from, after, off, on, and between. That’s not a scientific study of language, by the way, it’s my opinion. Here’s another opinion, about half of the time, the preposition is “by.” So when you see a sentence with a noun, a verb, and a prepositional phrase “by [whatever]” your passive radar should start ringing.

C)     Same Rule, The Part My Dickhead Professor Didn’t Get.

If he weren’t the only person with this misconception, I’d assume he just learned half a rule and missed the next day of class. Because a good portion of the English-speaking world (including a few old-school English teachers) labors under the same misconception, it’s worse than that.

The truth is if you find a form of “to be” in a sentence AND it’s followed by a past participle (let’s just call it a past-tense verb for now), you’re going to end up with a passive.

The cake has been [that’s our ‘to be’] eaten [that’s our past participle] by them (or anyone, at that point, because it’s already passive).

So Professor Asshat had half the rule right. Well, half of the first half of the rule, because he was dead wrong about passives being wrong all the time, too. But forms of “to be” (is, are, were, will be, have been, etc.) by themselves do not create passive sentences or clauses. When combined with past participles, they’ve always resulted in passive voice, though (hehe).


D)  Same Rule, Keepin’ it Real.

If your eyes rolled back in your head when I started talking about prepositional phrases, roll them back. The grammar part is over, and it’s time to deal with the real-world use.

1)    It helps to learn about the past participles and prepositional phrases, but it’s not required. You can identify passives if you are able to identify the subject of the sentence.  

2)    What’s the sentence about? That’s the subject. In my examples, some sentences have been about pie (“The pie was eaten by us”) and some sentences have been about us (“We ate the pie”). If you can identify the subject, you can identify passive voice.

3)    What does the subject do? In many sentences, the subject is also the agent of the action. If the subject is doing something, we don’t need to worry. The subject can’t be the doer of the action and the recipient of the action at the same time. It’ll go blind. (I’m kidding, it’s grammatically impossible). If the subject is doing the action (e.g., “The pie attacked Cleveland”), your sentence will be active.

4)    If the subject isn’t doing anything, you probably have a passive sentence. Take a look, is the verb being done to rather than by the subject? If the answer is yes, then your sentence is passive.

5)    If all else fails, look for prepositional phrases. Sentences can get complicated. Especially if you write like I do, and half of your first-draft sentences are run-on amalgamations of phrases and punctuation that seem to last for pages. You can still catch most passive sentences that have two nouns (and/or pronouns) if you just look for prepositional phrases that include “by.” Broaden your search to include on, off, from, against, between, and the other prepositions, and you’ll nail that type of passive.


E)    What the hell does this have to do with World War Z?

Because — zombies, man!

Among their few contributions to society are the zombies’ uncanny ability to guide us through passive sentences. Want to know whether a sentence without a telltale prepositional phrase is passive? Ask yourself this: Could the zombies have done it?

We ate the pie. (nope, there’s no pie left for the zombies)

The pie was eaten (cue awesome, eerie music) BY ZOMBIES! (yep, passive).

What you’re really doing here is inserting the implied prepositional phrase to show the actor in a sentence that lacks one. This is one of those rules that works better than it should, probably because it’s fun, which keeps editing interesting. Nothing livens your writing up like a good zombie apocalypse. Ironically, nothing shows the need for livening as effectively, either. If you run through a page or two of your manuscript and realize that you could have zombies doing most of the things that happen, there’s a pretty good chance your writing contains too many passives. One zombie every few pages? That just keeps your characters on their toes.

As I’ve said before, there are no rules of writing that shouldn’t be broken for the right reason. More importantly, knowing what the rule is, why it operates the way it does, and why it has been accepted as a “rule” is a prerequisite to breaking those rules effectively. Today I covered the relatively boring part (except for the zombies, because zombies are cool). Next up, we get to the fun part:

Passives Should Usually be Avoided Part Two (Or: How to effectively sprinkle zombies through your writing)

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