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I'm reading the The Elements of Style and one of the rules says you should avoid writing in the negative.

I encountered that on my own writing:

A deep silence followed after the words left my mouth. I turned to look at Akiko. She was staring vacantly at the ceiling, with eyes that reflected neither anger, shock, nor disgust. None of the reactions I had expected. She hadn't said anything, either. It was as if my words had sealed something inside her, in the deepest corner of her soul. I felt miles and miles away from her. I felt it wasn't my wife who I was looking at—just her empty shell.

So I tried rewriting it in the positive:

A deep silence followed after the words left my mouth. I turned to look at Akiko. She was staring vacantly at the ceiling. Strange, I had expected anger, shock, or at least disgust...


A deep silence followed after the words left my mouth. I turned to look at Akiko. I had expected anger, shock, or disgust, but nothing; she just stared vacantly at the ceiling...

But for some reason, I find myself preferring the original one. Maybe this passage fits the negative better? Or I'm editing it incorrectly?

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1 Answer 1

One of the things style guides don't do and can't do (in my opinion) is account for the psychological impact of how you present something, how you create an image, in someone's mind through writing. There are times where passive voice is the right thing, and where the negative perspective is far more impactful. I think of the style reference as telling you what you should avoid doing all the time, and if you do it, to know that you are doing it on purpose.

Reading the passage above, I agree with you that the first one is more important. Here's a breakdown of what I mean.

"with eyes that reflected neither anger, shock nor disgust" This leaves me, as the reader, very much wondering "Well, I wonder what reaction she's having. Clearly it's not an overt strong one... maybe the character is puzzled as well.

Now rewritten as your last example (slightly changed) "I had expected anger, shock or maybe disgust but instead she was just staring vacantly." Now this brings me immediately to wondering about why is she staring vacantly. A subtle difference. I wonder if she didn't react because of what she heard, or maybe it's something wrong in her, etc.

In my opinion, the second one isn't about positive or negative, but rather about where you bring me as a reader. I'm now engaged in the vacancy, as opposed to engaged about the absence.

Hopefully that helps,

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