Accentuate the Positive

Ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive
E-lim-inate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don't mess with Mr. Inbetween.

Who doesn't recognize the value of this sage advice from the 1945 hit sung by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters? But you may not realize the power of this advice for your writing when applied at the micro-level of sentences. I'm not talking here about avoiding negative topics. I'm talking about the value of rephrasing sentences from negative statements to positive.

One of the most compelling examples of this is found in an online article, Kurdish Female Warriors On the Front Lines Fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The lead paragraph states:

A notoriously fierce segment of the Kurdish security forces are striking terror into the hearts of ISIS terrorists – female fighters. The Jihadists have no problem slaughtering defenseless women but they don't like facing armed female warriors in battle – because they don't believe they'll go to heaven if they're killed by one of them.

In actual fact, those Jihadists DO believe they WON’T go to heaven if…

These tips will help you avoid false negatives.

Tell what IS rather than what ISN'T

Instead of writing "It wasn't raining that day," tell the reader, "The rain finally stopped" or "Dry weather that day allowed us to ..." or "My heart soared when I looked out the window that morning and saw patches of blue in the sky."

Do you see what's happening here? That negative statement implies a lot of things, but swinging it around to a positive, affirmative statement avoids a slightly onerous or whiney tone and creates space for discussing advantages and opportunities. Let's look at a few more examples of reversal:

Edward was not tall.Edward was of average height, able to disappear in a crowd.
The meeting was not marred by any discord.Discord was averted and the meeting ran smoothly.
Every time I worked overtime it didn’t show up in my paycheck.None of the times I worked overtime showed up in my paycheck.

Use precision wording

The paragraph about Jihadists is a prime example of imprecise wording. So is “all men are not tall” as cited in an earlier post, Brain Thorns. Examine each negative statement to be sure that is exactly what you intend to say.

View negative statements as opportunities to enhance the message

Rewording the description of Edward gives a better sense of his appearance, and the paycheck statement is awkwardly stated in several regards. The revision shifts the negative aspect to the subject, using a positive verb. The revised sentence flows smoothly, and the meaning is more clear.

Use negative statements sparingly for emphasis

Strongly worded negative statements have tremendous impact. George Washington’s purported statement, “I cannot tell a lie,” would not made history books if he’d said, “I must tell the truth.” How else could you state “The eyes don’t lie” without changing the meaning?

The paycheck statement is inherently negative and must be so for precise meaning. The obvious intent is to emphasize the inequitable situation. Revising yet again to state “Not a single one of the times I worked overtime ever showed up in my paycheck” adds additional emphasis and impact.

So, you see, by paying to detail, you can convey an upbeat, finely tuned, high impact message without sounding like Pollyanna. Consider every sentence and explore ways to ensure precise meaning and smooth flow. Trust me, smoothing sentences gets easier with practice.

Write now: Search several old stories in your collection and look for negative statements that would benefit from flipping or rewording.


Joan Z Rough said...

Sharon, Thanks for this. It's very helpful and something I hadn't thought about before.

Linda Visman said...

Excellent advice, Sharon. I will certainly take not of this. That song was one of my dad's favourites, and when I write of him, it is always in a positive vein.

Sharon said...

Joan, your acknowledgment that I helped you think in new ways is the highest compliment I could hope for. Thank you and glad to help.

Shirley Hershey Showalter said...

Great teaching, Sharon! Paying attention to detail gets better over time as we learn to see, hear, and hone.

Sharon said...

Thank you Shirley. It'd also with mentioning that detail is layered onto a story much the same way it is with a painting. Get the structure right, then add detail in varying degrees of finenesses.