Poetry & Prose

Over the past month or so, I've been thoroughly consumed with editing my second book. While issues such as spelling and general punctuation are relatively simple to fix (at least once they have been found) clarity still remains the most challenging aspect of writing for me.

One of the most common issues that I work to address is eliminating my use of the passive voice. The passive voice is one of the most dreaded mistakes for writers. Writing in the passive voice tends to muddle the clarity of prose while tending to make it wordy as well. This combination of wordiness and muddiness is at the pinnacle of "bad form".

As a side note, if one wishes to simultaneously confuse their readers and turn them off from their writing, stop reading and continue to use the passive voice. Everyone else, read on for several strategies that have helped me untangle my writing without making it feel coarse and terse.

I recently came across a sentence in my second book, The Spring of the Leaf, that I was having a great deal of trouble fixing. Of course, it was written in the passive voice:

The mantelpiece was covered with engravings of oak leaves and acorns.

The above sentence, which I originally wrote in the passive voice (due to the "was covered"), is somewhat wordy and unclear. Curious readers can easily become distracted by the ambiguity of the wording, finding themselves sidetracked by a plethora of questions.

Who engraved the mantelpiece? Was it completely covered?

How do I know this? Because these were the same types of questions that side-tracked me as I attempted to fix my form. My breakthrough came when I brought my focus back to the purpose of the sentence. All I wanted to do was to describe the fireplace without distracting the reader with extraneous details. This insight gave rise to the following formulation:

Engravings of oak leaves and acorns covered the mantelpiece.

From there, I felt comfortable making a few additional tweaks:

Intricate engravings of oak leaves and acorns adorned the mantelpiece.

The resulting sentence is short, sweet, and to the point. It is also strangely reminiscent of poetry. So, if you find yourself bogged down in prose, consider poetry. Who knows, you may find (as I have) that the poetic strategy of turning objects into subjects helps you clean up your prose!