Writing is an Art, Not a Science

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I met a particularly stubborn fellow one day at a translation workshop in Tokyo. The topic was about how to translate unnecessarily convoluted Japanese sentences into English. There were around 50 participants, and after the initial presentation we had split into groups for an activity.

The sentence assigned to our group was not only a ridiculously long one. (Japanese writers seems to have little to no compunction about using run-on sentences.) It also had a healthy dose of the passive voice. For example, “The report was submitted by the manager” is passive, while “The manager submitted the report” is active.

Anyway, as we were discussing one of these passive phrases (I can’t recall what it was exactly), I suggested a translation also using the passive voice. Now, it seemed perfectly natural to me, but one man, I think an American such as myself, a decade or two older than me, adamantly disagreed. Our exchange went something like this:

“You can’t use the passive voice,” he said.

Taken aback, I asked, “Why not?”

With powerful conviction, he replied, “The passive voice is always bad.”

Unable to come up with a wittier retort on the spot, I could only sarcastically disagree with an “Okay…”

Later that day or the next I did come up with that wittier retort, but it was too late because I never saw him again. So, I guess I’ll just make it here.

“Okay, I’m gonna ask you a question, and you respond with the first full sentence that comes to mind.”

“All right.”

“Where were you born?”

“I was born in (insert place name).”

As you can see, both the question and the response are in the passive voice. If I wanted to force this into the active, the Q&A would go something like this:

“Where did you come into this world?”

“My mother gave birth to me in (insert place name).”

Obviously, nobody talks like that. So why did our team member insist that “the passive voice is always bad”? (I do remember him saying that, hence the quotation marks.)

For that we can thank “The Elements of Style,” a writing guide written by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White and published in 1920. (Did you note the passive voice in the preceding sentence?) As Geoffrey K. Pullum details in his brilliant article, “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” this seemingly haphazardly produced tome of bad suggestions spawned a sea of grammarian uncertainty that afflicted Americans for generations. To compound the problem, many language arts teachers, from elementary to college, went on to cherry-pick the book’s guidelines. For example, they repeated the admonition against using the passive voice, but failed to mention the book’s caveat that in some cases it is in fact acceptable.

However, even if teachers had made mention of the exception, this would not, in my opinion, fix the problem. At the heart of the issue concerning writing style is that while yes, there are rules of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and so forth, style is exactly that. In other words, it is an art. It is therefore not well-suited to comprehensive regulation. We know in our minds good style when we see it. Others may disagree with our assessment of what is good and what is not. Such is the subjective nature of art.

This leads me to a question: If writing is an art and we want to get better at it, how should we go about it? Based on my experience over more than a decade as a translator and occasional travel writer, preceded by six years of university study and writing profusely as a liberal arts major in undergraduate and graduate school, I would say there are two things we need to do on a regular basis:

  1. Read good writing by other people.
  2. Practice writing and get constructive feedback.

When you read something that is well-written, it works on your brain like osmosis, subconsciously adding to your cerebral archives of snappy phrases, clever idioms and coherent structure. You can never read enough quality writing. Fortunately, there are numerous such resources, so many that you could never consume them all.

Obviously, it would be most efficient for a writer to find influences from the genre he or she works in. I’d like to share what in my case, as a non-literary translator (i.e. non-fiction, business documents, etc.), are some of the publications that I believe have had a positive influence on my writing—while also keeping me informed on what’s happening in the world. Right now I subscribe to The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Nikkei Business (in Japanese) and Foreign Affairs, and in the past I’ve been a reader of The New York Times, The Economist and the Nihon Keizai Shimbun (in Japanese). Then there’s Aeon, which has such a wonderful variety of insightful essays, yet the content is entirely free to read. (In fact, the articles at Aeon function as ads because many of them are excerpts from recent non-fiction books.) For writers based in Japan, I also highly recommend The Japan Times for learning elegant ways of expressing Japanese turns of phrase that don’t have quick-and-easy English equivalents.

As for my second piece of advice, practicing writing is easy enough to do. It’s getting constructive feedback that can prove a challenge. A friend or family member may just tell you that all your writing is “awesome” because they like you, while prowling internet trolls who find your work online may say it “sucks.” Neither of these is helpful. The problem is that constructive feedback takes time and effort—as do most things that are worth doing, like learning a foreign language—and most people aren’t going to give it away for free.

Joining a writer’s circle is one option. Just make sure to have a thick skin and an open mind. An honest critique of your writing—your art—can sting—a lot—but you’ll never get better without it. I remember in college when I started a writing exchange with another aspiring novelist, probably 10 or 20 years older than me. I ghosted him after his first critique of my juvenile writing. That was a shitty thing of me to do, because everything he said was true. I wish I could apologize to him now, but I don’t even remember his name. Oh well.

Anyway, just try to see things from your critic’s point of view. Be objective. Remember, this is for your benefit.

If you’re lucky, you may come across a person offering constructive feedback in the form of a teacher or professor at school, or an editor at work. I cannot overstate the value of a good editor. In fact, that is the topic of my next post, which I hope you’ll read by clicking here.

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