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February 14, 2012 / Amy Bradney-George

You are what you read (?)

My reading at the moment is incredibly varied: the average week will see me devour books, short stories, magazines, online news and various blog posts on everything from cooking to fashion, fitness, finance, films and (after a hint of my love for alliteration) politics.

One of the things I’ve noticed about a lot of the non-fiction works is that they tend to court the passive voice. And flowery prose. And what I like to call “cliched voices”.

Anyone who has taken a writing class (or read about writing) will know that writing has a “voice”: the idea is that the way I string my words together is very different to the way you structure your sentences, paragraphs and so forth, just like no two sets of vocal chords – or characters in fiction – are the same.

In the case of “cliched voices”, people write what they think will sound right, not what they actually want to write. Take the following passage:

“As the sun rose on a beautiful summer day, it was 7am and my sister called to give me the bad news.”

I have seen sentences like this in blogs, magazines and books (particularly autobiographies/first books) and to me it’s worse than a journalist burying the lead – these sentences are murdering the lead. They’re almost enough to make me stop reading, but usually I keep going and hope to be proven wrong. Sometimes I am, and that reminds me the being judgmental and/or critical doesn’t always put you on the high ground (note: “put you on the high ground” could definitely be considered use of cliched voice).

Ideally the active voice eats the passive voice.

A few of these common, familiar phrases can go a long way in engaging readers when they are used selectively, but I’m finding more and more (another favourite phrase of the cliched voice) writers that are not being selective. Writing is becoming a world of cliches, age-old phrases and passive voices.

I use them too, it seems like I can’t help myself. But I am aware of it and try to only use this style of writing as a tool to make articles or blog posts more conversational. I can also understand it in other mediums like personal blogs – I write here to try things out as much as to voice my thoughts and opinions, so it should be a safe space to slip up with cliches and too much use of the passive voice.

But what about when it’s in magazines, newspapers and books by established authors? It’s made me wonder whether we are what we read. You know how they say “you are what you eat” (a cliched phrase in it’s own right, but it serves me here)? Well is it true for reading as well?

I wonder whether that is the problem: we’re reading so many things written in the passive voice, with language that the writers think we “want to hear”, that we suddenly find ourselves writing like that unless we are 100% engaged in the task.

This is all just speculation and opinion, but surely I’m not the only one who has noticed this trend in writing. Are other people seeing the popularity of passive phrasing, cliches and overall “safer” writing? Is it a result of too many people trying to write like writers instead of just writing and being writers? Or something else that’s less confusing to phrase than the latter question?

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