Good advice on active writing

Here is some excellent writing advice from Nathan Sivin, a historian of Chinese science who is also an excellent pedagogue. Here he teaches you how not to sound like an evasive bureaucrat. The examples of bad writing are funny and instructive. The page this excerpt comes from (see reference at the end) contains a lot more good advice!

The art of bureaucratese is to mislead: to do what you have to do without admitting it, to make people think you are doing something they want done, to make sure if they complain that you can deny that they are complaining about the right thing, and above all to avoid responsibility when you are wrong. There are two supreme techniques: hiding the action, discussed here, and hiding who is acting. If you do it well, readers won’t guess that "it was determined that a recision of A should be enacted" means that you have arranged (without public legislation, of course) that they are no longer entitled to what their elected representatives decided you are supposed to provide them. If you were to say honestly "I have made sure that you will no longer get A," once the storm was over you might be unemployed. 

Like other bureaucratic tools, this one has penetrated deeply into everyday writing. It is not at all unusual to use a blah verb and hide the action somewhere else--not for any purpose, but just as a habit. Like the passive, it is one that some scientists and engineers cultivate, because their teachers tell them it is professional to hide the fact that a mere human being is doing the research and forming conclusions. Humanists, to the contrary, are not ashamed to admit it, and to acknowledge that objectivity is hypocrisy. 

Getting rid of this problem is easier than getting rid of the habit. As you edit, for each sentence just ask yourself "what is the main action of the sentence?" If it isn’t in the verb, move it there.

In "a surge of power was responsible for the destruction of the cooling pumps," the action is destroying, and the verb is "was." Once you realize that, it becomes clear how wordy this sentence is. The simplest way to improve it is "a surge of power destroyed the cooling pumps." You have made your point in 8 words instead of 13, without leaving out a single idea (responsibility is not what the sentence is about).

(SOURCE: Item 5 of "A Checklist for Editing", http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/~nsivin/editck.html)

Apr 13, 2017 7:50 AM