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Accentuate the positive

What if Shakespeare had written, ‘There are not many demons in hell. That’s because all the devils are here.’ Instead, the brilliant bard wrote: ‘Hell is empty. And all the devils are here.’ Would the first version have been as effective? Not a chance.

These powerful words from The Tempest remind me of some of the best advice I have ever read in Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. To paraphrase: Write strong, positive phrases. Avoid feeble language. Stay a good six feet from the word ‘not’ as a means of dodging a direct statement. Avoid ambiguous language and give vivid language a clear path to the page.

Consider Dickens. What if he had written, ‘It was the best of times, the rest of the time was not so good either…’ Dickens’ sentence structure brings up another means of strengthening language: juxtaposing contrasting phrases. ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ Thus, begins Dickens’ magnificent saga, A Tale of Two Cities. As with all novels that live to be classics, the opening lines are memorable not for their structure alone but the way they set up the story and lead us into it. The literary masterpiece illustrates many contrasts, among them characteristics of the angelic Lucie Manette and the diabolical Madame Defarge.

Accentuating the positive works in any genre. When casting about for words, my mind flows in a lazy channel. It’s fun, though, to search beyond what first pops into my brain.

Dreaming up evocative language is a challenge, but oh, so rewarding.

Surprises lie hidden in language and reveal themselves when you push yourself to say it better. Poets who like to play with form know this. Writing a villanelle, for instance, forces the use of rhyme, rhythm, and lines worthy of repetition. Form is a crucible that often demands more imagination than stream of consciousness provides.

Likewise, go for the direct statement. It may seem counterintuitive if you live to let words fly freely from your fingers. That’s okay, particularly during a first draft. But when you tighten the piece, delete weak construction and accentuate the positive.

Remember to evict that feeble word ‘not’ as a means of evasion. For instance, ‘a dismal day’ gives the reader a more specific image than ‘not a nice day’. Or, her main character was ‘insipid’ gives the reader more of a feeling for the person than he was ‘not a forceful’ man.

When you do this, you nudge yourself into writing in a fresher way. Search for the power that lies inherent in the positive turn of phrase. Such a writer trusts that, when incubated, an engaging simile, a colorful metaphor or a dash of humour will burst forth, crackling and chirping.

Rather than urging yourself to produce decisive statements as you write, you may prefer to write free flow and edit later. That works too but it can be time consuming, especially when you’re writing longer pieces or on deadline.

Lest you think I’m advising that you can channel your imagination into production like an assembly line worker, I must share with you that whenever time permits, I print my work as part of my writing, rewriting, and editing process. It lies about the house, maybe on my desk, the  kitchen table, even on my nightstand, open to catching the stray, precise phrase that may wander by when I’m doing something else, even sleeping.

On the final read, ask yourself: is there a more robust way to express this?

Here’s how to accentuate the positive: Let your brain roll along in its familiar grooves and edit with a firm pen later; or remind your brain to create new neuropathways as you write; and always, when time permits, let your manuscript sleep, perchance to dream a livelier piece.

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About Nan Lundeen

Nan Lundeen’s Moo of Writing handbook and her poetry can be found at The retired award-winning journalist lives in Michigan. Visit her at


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