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Zombie nouns and aggressive passives: kill that "office-speak"

One of the most common things I find myself writing in the margins of students' creative writing is "this is very Office-Speak-y". I am, of course, maligning the many millions (OK, half a dozen) companies whose internal communications are full - as Bertie Wooster would say - of pep and zest. But, even if your office is a cowshed or a diving-bell, internal office speak has a way of leaking out onto the pages of everyday life. And that tends to mean it leaks into your storytelling. (If you also want to tackle similar things in your academic or business writing, try my post here.)

So I've been enjoying Steven Pinker's energetic and engaging book, The Sense of Style, not least because how can you not enjoy a book whose example of getting into writerly trouble with a dead metaphor is, "No one has yet invented a condom that will knock people's socks off"? Pinker is untangling the sort of weak or muddled writing that afflicts non-creative work, but that has a lot to say to anyone who has trouble re-finding their creative writing voice after a break, or is still struggling with the basics of how to make a story come alive in the reader's mind.

So, what things can make creative writing read like "office-speak"? :

Bland, generalised language. It usually happens when you haven't imagined hard and fully enough to pin down the concrete, specific, individual qualities of the thing you're writing about: you've written "conflict" when you mean "fight", "quarrel" or "scrap"; "contact" when you mean "phone", "grab" or "wake". It's not always about replacing Latinate words with Anglo-Saxon ones, though often it is, but it's definitely about Showing, rather than the wrong kind of Telling.

Abstract language evoking abstract things. Of course you can write about peacemaking, or addiction or sex, but the human imagination works in physical terms. So it's even more important, if you want to evoke the importance of un-concrete things (which are very hard for us to imagine) to embody them in concrete language. If you write "On all occasions the opposition shall be treated on terms of peace" you're never going to work on the reader's mind and feelings as well as if you write, "We will break bread with our enemies even on the battlefield". True, a lot of the time when I see things like the first example, in the next sentence the writer moves on from the abstraction which served as the first scaffolding for the scene; you just have to remember to take all the scaffolding down.

"Zombie nouns", as Pinker calls them, following the brilliant Helen Sword, because "they lumber across the scene without a conscious agent directing their motion". The formal term is "nominalisation", i.e. nouns which have been made from verbs, so they can become the subject of the sentence: instead of "affirming" something, the character "makes an affirmation". And "the opposition", just above, is arguably a zombie noun because it's an abstract thing made from the verb "oppose". For example, "Comprehension checks were used as exclusion criteria". "My anticipation is that there will be a cancellation" have two zombies each.

Similarly, in "The dogs' participation is eager" we have an abstract concept, participation, being described, and the only action word is the almost-lifeless verb "is". Whereas in "The dogs participate eagerly", the same event is embodied in real people (all right, dogs) in action because the verb something they are doing. "Participate" isn't up there with "gallivant", say, for pep and zest, but at least it is an action, done by the subject of the sentence. Mind you, now I can see it as a verb, "participate" would be better as "join in" - but illustrates another excellent reason for going over your prose with a zombie-detector: reconsidering your original choice of vocabulary. A third reason is that it will often point you towards adjectives and adverbs which need interrogating

Passive voice verbs: as Pinker says, there are a few excellent reasons for using these (I blogged about them here). But most of the time they're deadening to your story, because human brains are wired to work in chains of cause and effect. If you're writing about an effect (the dog is beaten), without a cause (the "agent", a.k.a. person wielding a stick) then our imaginations have to jump back and, unconsciously, do a bit of "cognitive heavy-lifting", in recreating a cause so that we can then be convinced (in the fiction-reading sense) of the effect that follows. Mind you, when it comes to passive voice, zombies have their uses, and if that link isn't an example of how a concrete - albeit un-dead - thing can make an abstract concept comprehensible and memorable, I don't know what is. 

Badly-built sentences. English sentences carry their weight at the end, not least as part of the business of cause and effect: the syntax leads us towards the most important part of what's being said. That's one reason that the journalist's need to "front-load" a sentence can lead to so much trouble, if the writer isn't concentrating or their editor is asleep on the job. It's like the dead metaphor that tripped up the writer about condoms: the writer is fixed on what they think they're saying, and doesn't spot that a reader, who doesn't have the "curse of knowledge" that any writer has about what's being said, might read it in a different way. So it's crucial to learn to manipulate sentences so that the reader is affected in the way you want them to be. And to do that you also need to find ways to read your work as readers do, and as good actors say their lines: as if each idea, as it comes along, is brand new to you.

Hedging things. "almost" "nearly" "partially" (why not "partly", anyway?) "seemingly", "to some extent". It can feel to the writer as a matter of being more exact, when to the reader it reads as hedging: prose which isn't, really, making any kind of actual statement that it would, arguably, be fairly possible to take up a reasonably definite position about. Pinker calls it CYA: "cover your..." he says "anatomy", I'd say "arse", what with preferring Anglo-Saxon 'n all. He ascribes it to the academic or business need to show that you know X, or don't think Y opinion is gospel, before your enemies attack on those grounds. Creative writing can suffer from arse-covering too, especially in narrative, where you fear it seeming as if you, personally, don't know X, or hold Y opinion*. But it's also lack of confidence yourself: are you shrinking from making a firm statement because someone might quarrel with it? And, finally, it's lack of confidence in your reader: are they not grown-up enough to understand that of course there are exceptions, but neither of you is pedant enough to demand that the exceptions be spelled out?

And none of this need make your writing more wordy. One of the ironies of office-speak is that trying to be "businesslike" in tone often makes writers verbose. Passive-voice constructions use more words than their active equivalent; most of Pinker's "bad" examples are much longer than his "good" re-writings; in my Zombie Noun example, the non-office-speak example is four words instead of five: cutting 20% of the words over a whole chapter would tighten things up considerably. You can still "cover the ground", but in a vivid, evocative way. And if you want to go for the bare, monumental, heroic effect, that, too, isn't a matter of piling on the abstracts, but the right choice of concrete words.

Pinker recognises that most "bad" writing arises from perfectly sensible efforts to convey perfectly sensible things ... and that lots of the time what goes wrong is that the writer has mistaken their audience, or their subject, or the right route through that subject. Either that, or they haven't yet learnt how to step back from what they've said and read it as a reader. He also, characteristically, puts the boot into the "prescriptive" pundits, who regard "rules" as rules and breaking them as a moral and intellectual failure. But that boot is made of explainations of why and when and which of all these things do matter, and how to go about our real business: persuading our readers' minds to re-create the meaning of what we're saying. By zombies.

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*speaking as a middle child, I have never quite forgiven John LeCarré for the narrator of Smiley's People saying that "Middle children cry longer than their siblings". But I should remember that  LeCarré may not think that at all.)

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