Active Writing vs. Passive Writing

One of the frustrations about learning writing (and teaching it) is the confusion resulting from different lessons at different levels. At different levels, we are taught different–often conflicting–lessons. For example, were you taught to start the essay with a quote? Were you taught to place your thesis first? These are lessons from early on that don’t work as well in formal academic writing at the college level. Many model texts come from journalism, where the quotes begin many paragraphs. This is a problem in college-level writing, though. Let’s use our texts and question asking abilities to stamp out some of the lessons learned earlier on that may no longer apply. To do this, we’ll have to be careful.

Let’s take the example mentioned earlier about starting with a quote. How does starting with a quote affect the audience? One likely effect is entertainment; readers may be interested enough to read onward. That’s not an issue with nearly all academic writing, since you know your audience is not reading for entertainment. At lower levels, teachers are happy enough that students are quoting at all, so they applaud attention-getting moves.  Many statewide assessments have one essay set up so that students respond to a quote about literature.

    • It’s clear that many of our prior models (and pop culture) tell us that it’s fine to make a habit out of starting or ending with quotes.
    • To say that such quoting is okay to perform because it’s so popular, though, is a logical fallacy. It’s an incorrect appeal to values known as the ad popularum fallacy. We probably know it best from our moms when they said something like “If your friends jumped off the bridge, would you, too _______?”

Identifying the Problem
Starting with quotes makes the essay writer less active, since the quote is apparently doing all the work. However, as I have taught, writers need to become more active, always interpreting quotes. If paragraphs end or begin with quotes, what is the writer able to do with the quote? (Not much, unfortunately.) Think of the effects your quotes will have on readers.

What happens to the paragraph’s topic sentence when there’s a quote at the start? Writers rarely add in topic sentences if they quote first. Also, there’s the problem of why the paragraph ends up in the paper in the first place. Paragraphs filled with quotes mean the writer allowed the sources to take over the paper. This imbalance affects development, organization, and clarity.

I’m concerned that many of us aren’t getting the proper balance into our paragraphs. Sources are taking over, and transitions are lacking. The result may be a paper with many good paragraphs that are independent of one another and which were inspired directly by source material. As I evaluate what each writer does, these elements become major problems.

Fixing the Problem
Most of us were taught to put the thesis first in papers, right? That’s ineffective at the college level. It’s tough to unlearn past lessons and to adapt our writing to new situations. Hopefully, we can apply our critical thinking skills to the writing we do. It makes sense that writers should take these steps to craft papers with topic sentences logically linked to an arguable thesis. Quote placement plays a major role in how we will be judged by the audience.

It’s Not Just Spelling. . .
To check our paragraphs, we should:

    • Verify that there’s a topic sentence for the paragraph
    • Check to see that the topic sentence is linked logically to the thesis. (Ideally, your thesis should include its reasoning.)
    • Pay attention to how the paragraph ends. Is there a transition? Is the thesis or topic sentence linked to the material near the paragraph’s end?
    • View the number of quotes as an indication of how active the writer has been.
    • Add in missing interpretation and setup before/after quotes.
    • Throw in signal phrases so that quotes aren’t popping up without speakers or credibility
    • Break up long areas of source use
    • Check to see that the topic sentence comes from you, not just from the source.

Good readers are adept at scanning for these elements. If too many problems persist, your essay loses credibility and power. Each of these elements is easy to fix. The question is: Did you edit carefully enough that problem areas received attention?

Last idea: I just set up an either/or between active and passive writing.  There happen to be some limits to that sort of yes/no, this/that binary choice, right?