Transportive Writing

Good writing

The latest installment of Good Writing is a lesson in using active voice and parallel construction to paint vivid imagery. The scene it describes—of central Baghdad after two suicide bombings killed more than 150 people—is horrific. The L.A. Times’s account from Monday contains more than just a death toll, rundown of the infrastructure damage, and analysis of the political fallout. It also contains a paragraph that transports the reader directly to the scene:

The explosions ripped through traffic and buildings a block apart, hurling vehicles through the air, incinerating drivers and burning office workers at their desks. Blast walls erected for protection were pulverized. Mangled bodies and pieces of flesh lay strewn around the streets. Water spewed from a destroyed main and collected in blood-tinged pools.

In 53 words, the writers convey the raw damage. Notice that each sentence is constructed basically the same way: a subject takes an action, causing an effect. The active construction of the sentences (as opposed to passive construction, in which an action happens to a subject) and the rhythmic repetition throughout the paragraph grab the reader by the collar. There’s no escaping this imagery, even if we want to turn away.

3 Responses to “Transportive Writing”
  1. BartE says:

    Linguist Geoff Nunberg had made a case for the maligned passive voice:

    “But it’s become an article of grammatical faith which teachers and usage guides defend with judiciously chosen examples. Compare, I kicked a can and a can was kicked by me. Can’t you hear how the first is more vigorous, more muscular, more butch? But then there are plenty of passives that lose their own oomph when they’re made into actives. Imagine some Strunk & White fan revising all the titles in the popular musical catalogs, so that we’re left with The Animals’ “Please Don’t Let Anybody Misunderstand Me” and the Eurhythmics’ “This Is What They Make Sweet Dreams Out Of.” Not to mention Elvis’s “Someone or Something Has Shaken Me All Up.”

    • cbgaines says:

      Thanks, Bart, for always keeping me on my toes. This deserves its own discussion in a future post.

      • BartE says:

        Having worshiped Strunk & White since college, Nunberg’s comments came as a shock. But his underlying advice isn’t all that radical: before you attack a passive sentence, check to make certain you’re actually improving it.

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