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Page 1

M A R K T R E DI N N IC K

the

little red

writing

book

UNSW

P R E S S

U N S W P R E S S

the

little

red

writing

book

The Little Red Writing Book

is a lively and readable

guide to lively and

readable writing.

‘The฀Little฀Red฀Writing฀Book฀is฀a฀welcome฀companion฀for฀all฀of฀us฀

who฀work฀with฀the฀English฀language.฀The฀author฀tells฀us฀what฀

we฀ need฀ to฀ know฀ as฀ writers฀ and฀ shows฀ us฀ how฀ it’s฀ done฀ with฀

grace฀and฀care.฀He฀offers฀fresh฀and฀memorable฀examples฀of฀good฀

writing฀with฀a฀music-maker’s฀ear฀for฀words฀in฀tune.฀He฀guides฀

us฀with฀personality฀ and฀commonsense,฀ from฀precision฀editing฀

to฀poetic฀ freedoms,฀ all฀ the฀ time฀making฀ complex฀ things฀ clear฀

and฀simple.฀This฀is฀a฀book฀for฀every฀writer’s฀backpack.’

– N I CHOL AS JOSE

‘In฀ The฀ Little฀ Red฀ Writing฀ Book฀ Mark฀ Tredinnick฀ reminds฀ us฀

of฀ something฀ too฀ often฀ forgotten:฀ that฀ real฀ writing฀ begins฀ in฀

words,฀and฀the฀power฀of฀language฀to฀make฀the฀world฀anew.฀At฀

once฀a฀practical฀guide฀ to฀writing฀better฀and฀a฀deeply฀personal฀

exploration฀ of฀ the฀ writer’s฀ craft฀ it฀ is฀ that฀ rarest฀ of฀ things:฀฀

a฀writing฀manual฀that฀actually฀works.’

– JA MES BR A DLE Y

‘Good฀ writing฀ says฀ something฀ very฀ honest,฀ very฀ clearly.฀ It’s฀

partly฀ a฀ matter฀ of฀ technique,฀ but฀ mostly฀ a฀ matter฀ of฀ courage.฀

Mark฀Tredinnick’s฀book฀is฀great฀on฀sentences,฀paragraphs,฀and฀

practice฀ –฀ but฀ its฀ brilliance฀ is฀ in฀ its฀ ability฀ to฀ inspire,฀ and฀ its฀

exhortation฀to฀be฀brave.’

– ANNA FUNDER

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Page 2

THE LITTLE RED WRITING BOOK

MARK TREDINNICK is a poet, essayist
and writing teacher. His books
include The Land’s Wild Music (2005),
the forthcoming landscape memoir
The Blue Plateau and A Place on Earth
(UNSW Press, 2003). He writes
regularly for The Bulletin. Winner of
the Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize

and the Wildcare Nature Writing Prize, Mark runs
acclaimed writing programs at the University of
Sydney and at writers’ centres in Australia and the
USA. He also teaches grammar and composition and
runs writing workshops for clients in government
and business. For ten years, Mark was a book editor
and publisher. Once upon a time he was a lawyer.

Page 132

What does the passive look like?

In the passive voice the verb takes a specific form: a combination of
the verb to be in one of its tenses and the past participle of the verb.
It is from the tense of the verb to be that the form takes its tense.
Verbs can be passive in every tense under the sun. It’s from the
construction that the verb takes its voice.

So: have been achieved, is achieved, will be achieved, are given,
were given, am overwhelmed, will be overwhelmed, was
overwhelmed, were being overwhelmed, will be performed, will be
controlled.

The (im)personality of the passive voice

A sentence in the passive voice downplays agency; it subdues the
subject, rendering her inactive; it leaves out the actors or delays
their appearance; it speaks like an official affecting disinterest; at
best it sounds calm and objective, at worst, officious. It’s what it
sounds like that’s the biggest problem. It’s a voice that implies
that things have occurred by force of preordained necessity, at the
hand of some god. It suggests the speaker takes no responsibility
and couldn’t care less.

Objectivity is what too many writers have been trying for too
long to affect by writing in the passive voice. Objectivity is good as
far as it goes; and the passive voice is one way to do it. By leaving
oneself or any agent out, you make your sentences sound less
personal and more detached. But the passive voice, particularly
when it becomes a habit, strips sentences of humanity, personality
and life.

So what’s wrong with writing passively?

1 It’s sneaky. Well, it can be. The closest Richard Nixon got to
taking responsibility for Watergate was to say ‘Mistakes have
been made’. If dodging the blame is your game, don’t use it—
the game is up.

Grace 131

Page 133

Even if you’re not trying to be shifty, you run the risk of
sounding like all those people who are.

2 It’s stiff. Except in skilful hands, passive sentences, and
especially passive paragraphs, sound pompous, lofty and stiff.
Passive-aggressive, even, or defensive, because the writer is
withholding the whole truth—who’s taking responsibility.
Passive sentences make readers nervous, uncomfortable and
suspicious. Here’s an example of unnecessary and all too
commonplace stuffiness:

A licence will be issued upon receipt of a correctly completed
application form.

3 It’s dull. It bores us. How can it fail to, if it’s sustained? Where
are the people doing things? Where is the action? Nothing’s
doing in the passive voice.

4 It’s vague. Where it leaves out the actor, the passive-voiced
sentence withholds information the reader needs. It’s not that
we care exactly who the agent is. It’s just that if you don’t put
someone in that role, we’ll have to guess. And guessing gets dull
pretty fast. Being left in the dark (which is sometimes the point)
gets aggravating, too.

5 It’s inefficient. If you write in the passive you leave something out
(the agent of the action), upon which comprehension depends.
So your sentence won’t ever work for your reader quite as well
that way. Even if you put that piece in the sentence at the end,
following ‘by’, you’ll be using more words to tell the same story
than you would in the active voice. It may not seem much, but
it adds up:

The following are key components that were noted during our
investigation.

Why not, ‘We noted the following factors’ or ‘Our study uncov-
ered the following points’?

132 The little red writing book

Page 263

Passage from Bad Land by Jonathan Raban, published by Picador,
an imprint of Pan Macmillan, reprinted by permission of the
publisher.

Passage from Maps of the Imagination by Peter Turchi, published
by Trinity University Press, reprinted by permission of the publisher.

Passages from The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens by Wallace
Stevens, published by Faber & Faber, reprinted by permission of the
publisher.

Passages from More Matter by John Updike, published by Alfred A.
Knopf, a division of Random House, reprinted by permission of the
publisher.

Passage from Recollections of a Bleeding Heart by Don Watson,
published by Random House Australia, reprinted by permission of the
author and publisher.

Passages from Collected Poems: Volume One by William Carlos
Williams, published by Carcanet, reprinted by permission of the
publisher.

Passages from Cloudstreet by Tim Winton, reprinted by permission of
the author and Jenny Darling Associates.

Passages from Mrs Dalloway and The Waves by Virginia Woolf,
reprinted by permission of The Society of Authors, literary represen-
tatives of the author’s estate.

262 The little red writing book

Page 264

M A R K T R E DI N N IC K

the

little red

writing

book

UNSW

P R E S S

U N S W P R E S S

the

little

red

writing

book

The Little Red Writing Book

is a lively and readable

guide to lively and

readable writing.

‘The฀Little฀Red฀Writing฀Book฀is฀a฀welcome฀companion฀for฀all฀of฀us฀

who฀work฀with฀the฀English฀language.฀The฀author฀tells฀us฀what฀

we฀ need฀ to฀ know฀ as฀ writers฀ and฀ shows฀ us฀ how฀ it’s฀ done฀ with฀

grace฀and฀care.฀He฀offers฀fresh฀and฀memorable฀examples฀of฀good฀

writing฀with฀a฀music-maker’s฀ear฀for฀words฀in฀tune.฀He฀guides฀

us฀with฀personality฀ and฀commonsense,฀ from฀precision฀editing฀

to฀poetic฀ freedoms,฀ all฀ the฀ time฀making฀ complex฀ things฀ clear฀

and฀simple.฀This฀is฀a฀book฀for฀every฀writer’s฀backpack.’

– N I CHOL AS JOSE

‘In฀ The฀ Little฀ Red฀ Writing฀ Book฀ Mark฀ Tredinnick฀ reminds฀ us฀

of฀ something฀ too฀ often฀ forgotten:฀ that฀ real฀ writing฀ begins฀ in฀

words,฀and฀the฀power฀of฀language฀to฀make฀the฀world฀anew.฀At฀

once฀a฀practical฀guide฀ to฀writing฀better฀and฀a฀deeply฀personal฀

exploration฀ of฀ the฀ writer’s฀ craft฀ it฀ is฀ that฀ rarest฀ of฀ things:฀฀

a฀writing฀manual฀that฀actually฀works.’

– JA MES BR A DLE Y

‘Good฀ writing฀ says฀ something฀ very฀ honest,฀ very฀ clearly.฀ It’s฀

partly฀ a฀ matter฀ of฀ technique,฀ but฀ mostly฀ a฀ matter฀ of฀ courage.฀

Mark฀Tredinnick’s฀book฀is฀great฀on฀sentences,฀paragraphs,฀and฀

practice฀ –฀ but฀ its฀ brilliance฀ is฀ in฀ its฀ ability฀ to฀ inspire,฀ and฀ its฀

exhortation฀to฀be฀brave.’

– ANNA FUNDER

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