Communication

Ever come across a piece of prose where you studied the words and thought… gee, I’d like to write like that.

It might be good.
But if you actually NOTICED the writing, I posit that it’s not great. It is not the ultimate display of skill, nor the greatest success that a writer can achieve.

When you hit a really really really great writer… you are superbly unaware of their writing. They manage to communicate so well with the reader that it just… happens. You are IN the story. You’re getting the idea without realizing that the author painstaking constructed this scene, those circumstances. That is true mastery.

It is incredibly hard to do, and most authors fail to some degree. Those who succeed, the evidence suggests are natural raconteurs and don’t know quite how they do it. The handful who succeed AND know what they’re doing, and manage to carry complex plots and ideas along with it are at the literary genius level. (Shakespeare – at the time he was writing – was. Kipling was. Some Zelazny was IMO)

In other words most of the literary luvvies with their overblown prose are second-raters. Any fool can write complex turgid prose about complex ideas with a sesquipedalian vocabulary. To write the same complex ideas clearly and simply…

Well, that’s something to strive for. Something we should award prizes for.

I have a theory that such writing is what makes readers, and therefore should be a treasure to all authors, booksellers, publishers. The other stuff may win prizes but is hurting reading.

Now I am going to throw a nasty idea at you. Maybe we’re missing a villain in the slow derailment of reading.

Strunk and White. The Chicago Manual of Style. House style.
Grammar grundy and friends. I hear the latest is grammar grundy can whinge to Amazon about perceived typos and get your book taken down to be fixed — which is way too much power to give to a process that is based on… rules.

The idea behind ‘rules’ has increasingly become ‘rules’. Because you know, rules are rules. And Shakespeare should taken down because he didn’t OBEY them. It’s rather like lawyers and their interpretation of law. The law to them is a meaningless set of rules – rules whose purpose it is to be followed. If you can twist or find an omission, even if the perpetrator is obviously guilty, that’s just fine by them. The purpose of law to most of the rest of us is a guideline to doing the right thing, and supposed to help us with the guilt and innocence determination, but does not make someone we can see did something wrong ‘innocent’ just because they have a clever lawyer. And we all know what the purpose of those grammar grundy rules are: They are to help us writers communicate as effortlessly with the reader as possible. So – a grammar rule/house style that forces the reader to re-evaluate even by a second glance or piece of thought a sentence… is a failure. It’s a rule followed for blind rule’s sake.

It should be tossed – even if it is house style. In fact varying house styles are an offence. You’re not being clever by using them. You’re being the equivalent of a ‘literary’ dunce, who believes big words mean big ideas.

A classic example is alright/all right. Alright is common American (and thus world English) usage. It does not cause the reader to pause. There is no right or wrong, no matter what grundy says. Another common American usage is ‘your’ for ‘you’re’ – that IS wrong because it forces the reader to re-evaluate the sentence to determine meaning. So it slows the reader down, breaks word-trance and fails the ‘clear communication’ test.

Another common house style issue that really really bugs me is this:
(.”) — which a number of particularly American publishers decided was a clever rule and bugger what it did communication. It would be consistent!

Why this fails, IMO, is that it displays a rotten grasp of the mechanics of reading. Few people read letter-by-letter, left to right. Most of us read word-by-word AND/OR sentence-by-sentence. At the same time, even. The brain works on shape recognition for words. So long as Prince Zaborx’s name ends in a Z and has a high letter in the middle somewhere and ends in X, the interesting variations Dave puts in there will not even be seen by 90% of readers. If Dave loses the pattern, the shape of the word and screws up the end or beginning most of us will be irritated by it. This works at the sentence scale too. “This tells us we’re in conversation,” said Dave. Because, whether you realize it or not the cues have communicated that to your brain. We are sensitive to small cues on the sentence scale, and we are not always aware of receiving that cue. That’s a biological feature of social animals particularly. Ignoring it is plain stupid. Ignoring it makes readers slow even if they don’t realize there is a problem. It doesn’t matter if the problem is consistent and “house style.” — your brain read that, WHICH IS NOT SPEECH, as speech, and had re-evaluate it, thereby slowing down your reading. Thereby failing to communicate. Thereby obeying rules instead of the purpose of the rule.

Because the sentence – which you saw or retained as a whole – was ended .”

And what was ‘a quote’, was first read as speech and then as ‘a quote’. (‘. or at worst “.) Like you’re and your, they mean two different things and must be expressed differently.

And that should be enough to have every grammar grundy in the universe having fits…

The purpose of writing is communication. The purpose of rules is to help that. Making rules which force re-read or re-evaluation will not be ‘right’, no matter how many rules you make.

15 comments

  1. Yeah. I hate the rules about quotes. And parentheses and punctuation. I tend to read them as if they were an algebra equation, and what’s in or out of the parentheses matters.

    1. Maybe the difference those who do math and those who don’t. It infuriates me. It infuriates me even more that readers assume you (the author) got it wrong.

  2. I’ve seen it before. Musicians all know that once you *can* do it, the next big phase of work is to do it in a way that makes it seem effortless (and ballet dancers will tell you how much goes into making their movements seem natural, easy, and effortless).

    Writing is the same. If it looks like someone worked hard, someone probably did – but they aren’t on the same level as someone who’s writing vanishes into the story. Dave hits that level for me. So does Sarah. Pratchett I have trouble *analysing* his prose because I’m sucked in so fast.

    As for the grammar wowsers, I guarantee you they’re reading to poke holes, and if that’s the worst they can manage you’re doing pretty well (I am so not going near the whole question of US vs UK vs Australian usage. There are monsters there. Big ones. Possibly bunyips as well).

    1. Back in the dark ages, when I’d just got into Ichthy Honors – which was at that time considered the toughest science Honours in SA, and is now only accessible as the final year of four… my very German Professor called me in after i had turned in my first assignment. I was very proud of that assignment. He said: “Are you German?” I replied well, I spoke German before I spoke English, but no (English was in fact my 4th or fifth language, which may explain a lot). He said “Well, only if you write in German are you allowed sentences that are one page long.” I am not a naturally skilled writer. I work at it, but I know I am not getting there yet, and I may never. Pratchett, taken in sequence – if you can detach yourself enough – is a wonderful study of a good writer progressing to become a great one.

  3. I called my daughter — the self-described “grammar Nazi” who also knows when to say “screw the roolz, I gots a story to tell” — to read this. She cackled partway through, then turned to explain. When she hit the bit about the grammar-grundy demanding that a story be taken down to be “fixed”, she envisioned The Grinch: “I’m taking it back to my workshop, my dear …”

    Being from a family with an overwhelming number of elementary-school teachers (including both my mother and her younger sister — my third-grade teacher), I sort of absorbed all the elements of grammar and punctuation through the skin without noticing. But, being *me*, I also grew an overdeveloped tendency to play tiddly-winks with those rules when it suits my fancy … of course, since I write thatlow-brow “genre” fiction — and comedic genre fiction at that — no one really expects all that much of me anyway. 🙂

    1. It’s apparently really happening (shakes head). I have this mental image of the big 6 suddenly getting their editors/proof readers to read and sabotage any overly successful indy. But 1)I am too paranoid, 2)that would be too much like work – they’d probably expect authors to do it for them, for free 3) It’s probably too clever.

      The key thing with breaking the rules is know what they are, and why you’re breaking them… and if the cake is worth the candle.

      As I regard humor as the single hardest thing to write… maybe they’re not expecting much of wrong people.

      1. It is happening. NRP has had Amazon ask us to take down two titles to “correct” issues. The first was a conversion issue on their end where three words in a 100k word novel were messed up. We took it down and fixed. The second was over a supposed comma fault. Yes a comma fault. We checked it against the Chicago Style Manual and Words in Print, etc. Nope, it wasn’t wrong. So we sent a note back basically saying “thp”.

        1. FAR too much power to the grammar grundies. I suggest adding something like this in – “In the event you discover errors in the text of this edition, we’d love to fix them. Please email us at errata@plonkety-plonk.com and not only will we fix them, we’ll send you back a corrected edition in the format you previously purchased. Please send the title, chapter number, and surrounding context as page numbers vary depending on platform and font size.”

          Which will fix real errors and stop I like to moan but not do anything positive.

        2. I break rules all the time. A’purpose. With both malice and forethought. And I have NO intention of letting people try to tell me their dogma trumps my art.
          That’s why it’s “art”, after all …

      2. Oh, it’s happening, but the big 6 ain’t involved. Their proof readers aren’t good enough for that.

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