Thursday, May 17, 2012

Thoughts on the Craft of Writing

I've been reading a few OSR blogs and their discussions of writing. All of these are helpful in one way or another but the advice should be considered just that - advice. The same goes with my thoughts below. Take it all with a grain of salt. This isn't a manifesto, rather it is just a personal reflection with the intent of helping people who are interested. Active voice/passive voice is my bag - so I'll spend most of my time focusing on that subject.

I've taught first year students at university for 10 years now. Teaching undergrads means teaching them to write from the ground up. You have to get them to look in the mirror and acknowledge their bad habits. Of course, nobody likes to look in the mirror but that's part of the process of learning the craft. At one point in time, all good writers were taken aside (and repeatedly taken to task) for their writing - it's just how good writers are made. I also believe that writing is a life-long learning skill and best taught in a mentorship-style. Reading "how to write" from a book is only valuable to a point. Also, good writers possess range - they understand writing conventions across fields and can thus tweak their language and structure to suit the needs of the medium. My learners get these messages in regular doses.

In my classes, I focus on formal structured writing - so formal argumentative essays are the order of the day. This means I need to teach the concept of authorial voice. Formal writing, in my view, requires an active voice sentence structure. What is active voice? We use active voice to sound more authoritative and confident by ensuring each sentence has a subject at the beginning, an action word or verb, and a thing (or object acted upon). This style is also referred to as SVO (or subject, verb, object) and is the basic sentence structure of the English language.

This style stands in contrast to passive voice which normally positions the subject at the end of the sentence.

Active Voice: The troll built the bridge.
Passive Voice: The bridge was built by the troll (or sometimes) The bridge was built.

The above are basic examples that serve to illustrate the point. The active voice sentence contains only five words and reads in a more authoritative fashion because we located the subject at the beginning. The passive voice sentence contains seven words and is less authoritate because the reader doesn't learn about the subject until the end of the sentence. Even worse, the third example has no subject at all.

Let me guess - some of you just said "Big-friken deal. You cut two words!"

My response: You cut two words from that sentence, made it more concise, and made it more authoritative. Now extrapolate that example over an eight sentence paragraph. How many words did you just cut and say exactly the same thing? Now extrapolate that paragraph over one page, two pages, five pages, and then over an entire manuscript. How many needless words did you cut from your writing? Exactly. In this new, strong, active form your writing will leap off the page, rather than sitting as dead letter.

So now that we understand the purpose of active voice we need a toolset to find passive voice in your writing. This is the simple part. Passive voice results from the overuse of the most overused verb in the English language - the verb "to be". So we need to conjugate the verb. When we do that - in various tenses - we get the following words "was, am, be, is, were, are, been, being".

So go examine a piece of your writing for these words. Use of these results in a passive voice construction. Experience has taught me that you have either left out the subject, or you have the subject at the end of your sentence. There are other possible reasons, but those, in my experience, are the two most common errors.

In a game-publishing context writing in active voice isn't critical. Would I recommend it? Sure. It is helpful, but the medium doesn't really require a formal voice. In contrast, my academic book "Hunting for Empire" required it - you would be lucky to find 5 passive voice constructions in over 60,000 words.

If I were to offer constructive help, I'd suggest the following: avoid double-negatives that give people ice-cream headaches, avoid starting sentences with conjunctions, avoid using "it" instead of a proper noun, avoid contractions, and avoid run-on sentences (one thought = one sentence).

Everybody you ask will have a slightly different opinion - and that's ok. If you are writing for fun, you need to decide what works for you. For my part, writing is an art not a science. There are habits that result in good writing and habits that are less good - but no objective measure exists. It takes practice and, in my opinion, a good mentor (Thank you, Nancy B).

Let me know if this post was valuable or not in the comments or if you have any questions.


  1. I read the Chaotic Henchmen post too and had some thoughts about it as well. With respect to active/passive voice: the admonition against using passive voice is ubiquitous. We are told to avoid it, and then we chant it like a mantra, perpetuating the myth that it should never be used. Sometimes active voice is a better stylistic choice, particularly if doing so makes your writing more taut and concise. But not always.

    Scientific writing, on the other hand, relies upon passive voice more often than not, because it is better to take a less authoritative position and to limit the authorial voice. Instruction manuals, including game rules, benefit greatly from the use of passive voice. Basically, there are few hard and fast rules regarding style, and the good writer needs to understand when a particular style is appropriate and when not. Good editors need to learn this, too.

    Another point raised in the Chaotic Henchmen post was the admonishment against numbering empty rooms in adventures and including them as 'empty' in the key - and here he specifically singled out Barrowmaze as a 'how not to.' I completely disagree with this. As I have said many times, adventures are game aids, not novels. As a game aid, I want ALL of the rooms on a map numbered and keyed regardless of whether they are empty or not. Dungeons are dynamic environments and a room that is empty today may not be tomorrow and numbering them helps me, the game master, to use them as part of the dungeon.

  2. avoid double-negatives that give people ice-cream headaches love that.

    Great post. The only thing I would have added is the evil of adverbs. I hope you have more of these posts in your cue.

  3. Anoth reason why passive voice gets used commonly in science disciplines is to provide the appearence of objectivity - as if the author was disassociating themselves from their own text. Social scientists really bug me for that reason. All research is biased. Objectivity is a social construct.

    1. There are some excellent reasons for using passive voice, particularly when describing an experiment. Consider which of the following sentences is better in this example:
      1. "I attached electrodes to the subject's scrotum."
      2. "My assistant, Igor, attached electrodes to the subject's scrotum."
      3. "A lab assistant, whose name I cannot remember, attached electrodes to the subject's scrotum."
      4. "Electrodes were attached to the subject's scrotum."

      The important thing is that electrodes were attached to scrota. Who did the attaching is irrelevant and distracting.

    2. Owww. I don't think I like passive or active in any of those examples.

  4. Good discussion! (Tangent: Blogs suck as a discussion venue. Sigh.)

    @Sean: In practice, what do you do when a module doesn't number all rooms? What if the module does number all rooms, but you want to make notes about a non-room area?

  5. Guy do you have an example? I'm not quite following...

  6. I think that guy meant that it is difficult to express an argument completely in the comments?

    @Guy: I would have to add the numbers myself. I'm not sure what you mean about non-room areas. I don't think that has ever come up.

  7. I have a case in BMII where things happen differently for a section of rooms depending on what the PCs do. I inserted a note before that run of rooms explaining the situation. If the PCs do this then Y happens, if the PCs do That then Z happens. Is that what you mean?

  8. @Sean: While DMing last night's AD&D game, I added a number of notes to hallways & pits (in Barrowmaze, actually), about changes in those environments. I regularly make notes about where creatures hammer spikes, leave gear, make marks, position sentries, and so on. Probably half of those notes relate to non-room areas, where basically no publisher has ever put a "key" number.

    (Re the blog tangent: Decentralization of blogs means readers have to know where to look to find followups and related discussions when one blog contains a reply to some other blog's post. Forums support discussion better, and also serve as a rallying point for related topics. No big deal; just a personal peeve, and eventually technology will sort things out. But in 10 years when people are trying to aggregate and distill insights written in 2012, they're probably in for a world of pain. By contrast, prevalent forum & mailing list usage circa 2000 make it comparatively easy, for example, to read discussions with Gygax, or understand the genesis of the retro clones, etc.)

    1. @Guy: Ah, I see. For things like this I prefer to make my notes on the map itself, but this is difficult to do in Barrowmaze because the map is too small and crowded for notation. I suppose that if a publisher were to write 'empty' in the empty rooms on the map I would be okay with that, too.

    2. Why have the publisher mark "empty" on the map rooms, when it would take up space? Why not just leave the room blank?

      (I have a feeling I'm failing to understand a subtlety of your point.)

  9. Oh, ok. Actually the margins of my copy of BM are absolutely filled with notes for very similar things. Are you suggesting dedicated space for these items in the narrative or at the back?

  10. @Sean, yes but I'd suggest there are epistemological reasons for doing so in science.

    The objectivity myth is core to the disourse of science - sentence structure serves to reaffirm it.

    1. Don't you mean: I believe the objectivity myth is core...


    2. Haha! I love it! Bonus marks!

      It depends on your degree of relativism :)

  11. A very helpful post thanks O Kilted One. :-)

  12. I think some of the copywriters at my work need to read this, particularly the part about being concise. I can't tell you how many times I've laid out a page and said, "you have around 75 words you can write in this area," only to have it come back as 250 words.