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.