Hello! Maureen Pratt, back again, for my monthly CAN Blog post. I’m very happy to be blogging today about the craft of writing and, specifically, the huge difference “writing positive prose” can make in describing characters, painting pictures, and conveying the heart of a story, be it fiction or non-fiction.
What do I mean by “positive?”
Given two possible ways of writing the same sentence, the more positive can be the strongest one to choose. Consider this description:
“Amy didn’t necessarily think she was beautiful, but she couldn’t believe that the casting director put her in secondary roles that didn’t allow her to take the lead and shine as much as she knew she could.”
Now this one:
“Amy knew she was plain, but she was frustrated that the casting director put her in secondary roles that kept her in the background and prevented her from showing everyone what she could do.”
In the first example, the description is moved along by negatives – ‘didn’t necessarily think’ and ‘couldn’t believe.’ The tone of this paragraph has a whiney quality, and conveys a personality that seems stuck in the situation, with no way out.
The second example is more straightforward (positive) in describing the same situation. The same scenario comes through, however Amy’s voice, that is, her way of viewing herself and her situation, is stronger, more active, and is a natural segue to her taking steps to correct the rut she finds herself in.
Positive writing also makes a difference in non-fiction. Consider this sentence:
“Four out of twenty applicants won’t be hired at the new plant this year.”
And, now this:
“Sixteen out of twenty applicants will be hired at the new plant this year.”
Descriptions can also benefit from a positive voice:
“The neighbors didn’t believe that the tornado had not ripped through both of their houses that night.”
“The neighbors were amazed that the tornado had spared both of their houses that night.”
In the first example, the neighbors are described in a kind of vicious circle of doubt in the face of reality, whereas in the second, more positive, example, we get a stronger, clearer sense of their emotional state as directly impacted by events.
During the revision process, it helps to do a read specifically for those places where the negative tone or tilt can be replaced by the positive. Sometimes, this can uncover character traits or a focus that raises the level of the work as a whole, and perhaps give more ideas for improvement.
Finally, one other place where I have found that positive sentence structure is preferable to the negative is in writing prayers. In my book, “Peace in the Storm: Meditations on Chronic Pain & Illness,” for example, I focused on writing prayers asking not what God would not do (“Don’t let this disease take hold of me, Lord”) but rather on the positive, the active relationship between the supplicant and the Lord (“Please help me understand your will for me.”). On paper, as in real life, the more that relationship can be positive, the more open, nurturing, and encouraging it can be.
Blessings to you and for the work of your hands,