Monday, March 19, 2007

The rules of writing

, in The Life of Samuel Johnson, which was published in 1791, quotes saying, “I would say to Robertson what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils: ‘Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.’” (The more recent and more colorful version, which I and many others have falsely attributed to but which turns out to have been written by , is “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.”)

My eleventh grade English teacher, on the first day of class, distributed a two-page handout consisting of rules of English composition. These were rules, such as the one above (Johnson’s version, not Quiller-Couch’s) on the basis of which he was going to grade our compositions. Want an A in the class? Learn the rules. Ignore the rules? Fail the class. Shades of gray? Nonexistent.

This was a salubrious experience for me, because until then I had developed a keen ability to ace multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank grammar and vocabulary tests, but I had been unsuccessful in writing cogent paragraphs, let alone compositions of any length. But when I relate this experience to people of later generations, they recoil in horror at the rigidity of it all. Oh, we couldn’t possibly teach people to write like that. Think what it would do to their fragile self-esteem! (Ever notice that people indoctrinated in the Whole Language movement cannot utter self-esteem without prepending fragile)?

So when are rules appropriate?

People have different learning styles. Some people induce the rules of language just by listening and repeating. Others do better with a cheat sheet. Others are not oriented toward expressing themselves in writing at all, and neither aural immersion nor lists of rules nor gloom of night will turn them into writers.

But for those who might be amenable to studying a set of rules, we also need a set of metarules. Here’s an attempt:
  • If you don’t write well and you know you don’t write and you don’t know why you don’t write but you want to or need to write better than you do, grab yourself a convenient and easy-to-comprehend list of rules for good writing and practice following them.
  • When you know you can follow all the rules on your list and you do so consistently, set the rules aside. Recall that you chose one of many available such lists and other writers chose different lists. Understand that these lists are teaching devices, not comprehensive descriptions of all good writing.
  • With your newly acquired framework, read widely and notice that a lot of good writing strays from commonly accepted rules, intentionally and to good effect. Understand that the grammar of the English language is quite flexible and admits of all sorts of shenanigans but that these shenanigans come with a price: You have to understand what or you are working in and use figures appropriate to it.
  • Practice wriggling out of the straitjacket you imposed on yourself. Swing your arms a bit. See if you can exercise this freedom responsibly or if it instead gets you arrested for disorderly writing. Keep your list handy, just in case. Writers tend to get sloppy after a few decades. Guard against that.
  • Get feedback from an editor.
The only real rule: Write well.

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