Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Nuts & Bolts: Style

This is something, up with which, I will not put.
-Winston Churchill, to an editor attempting to change one of Churchill’s sentences that ended with a preposition.

When most of us think of style, one of two things comes to mind: either Isaac Hays in his gold caddy singing the theme song to Shaft or Strunk and White’s atrocious writing style guide. When I say style, regarding the writing of fiction, I mean a little bit of both—though let’s put aside Strunk and White and focus on grammar and style guidelines that actually work. “Style” in fiction writing really refers to several elements, including diction, the author’s voice, clarity of expression, and sunglasses. Gold ones. Worn at night.

So let’s talk about Strunk and White, briefly. The thing about grammar rules that they screwed up and that a lot of folks don’t seem to understand is that grammar rules should make sense. Each one serves a very specific purpose, though their approaches may be individualized; each one is trying to help the writer achieve clarity of expression. That’s it. Grammar rules exist to help you make sense to the reader as clearly as possible. So if the rule doesn’t make sense, it probably wasn’t explained well, probably because whoever explained it to you didn’t understand the rule’s actual purpose, probably because they learned the rule from Stunk and White. I’m not just being cute, here; Strunk and White have done real damage to style by their confusing and often contradictory advice. My advice is to always abide by the rule of what expresses your intended meaning most clearly, regardless of any other rule or suggestion. (Remember that most of the writers who are generally recognized as brilliant tend to have fairly idiosyncratic writing styles, i.e. their writing breaks established rules or simply create their own.) (Grammar rules are, also, based on popular usage, believe it or not. Or rather, they change based on popular usage, in much the same way as language, itself, changes. But again, we’re not trying to be avant garde, simply clear.)

So when Strunk and White say don’t ever use passive voice, you don’t have to use semicolons to link two complete sentences if they’re short, all these fuzzy rules, ignore them. Sure, passive voice is often unclear, but sometimes it works. So do what works in that situation. Be precise. Understand what the rules truly mean. If you do that, you won’t have to break them very often, but when you do, it will matter.

**Blues for the Oxford Comma, An Aside

Nothing brings writers and humanities educators to blows as quickly as an argument about the Oxford Comma. I have no idea why this is such an affecting issue; I just know that they’re wrong. In all seriousness, let’s examine it: the Oxford Comma (or serial comma) is the comma placed (or not placed) before the conjunction in a list. So: I went to the store for bread, milk, and eggs. People with a journalism background will say it’s unnecessary because the conjunction separates the items and performs the same duty as the comma would. This isn’t exactly true. Commas separate. Conjunctions join, even in a negative sense. So eliminating that last comma joins the last two items in the list. (Kind of like saying: I went to the store for bread, as well as milk and eggs. “Milk and eggs” are linked more closely, in this sentence, than bread. But why? That’s never made clear.) The counterargument to this is that readers are big boys and can figure out what the writer meant. Well sure, of course they can, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t sloppy writing. Proponents of this argument are admitting that they don’t value precision in their writing, and that’s not something I’m prepared to do, personally. I’m not saying I’m a perfectionist, but I do attempt to say what I mean as exactly as possible.

Most style guides argue for the serial comma, unless they’re geared towards journalism. Excising that serial comma was first done to save space. That’s the only reason, really. Space matters in a printed newspaper column. Okay, let’s give them that one. I could mention that printed newspapers are going the way of the cassette tape or Myspace profiles, but I’ll let that go. This idea of precision is what’s important, here. The missing serial comma might make an astute reader pause for the tiniest millisecond, but that matters. (Also, the idea that most readers won’t notice is insulting to readers and frankly shows a real disconnect from the audience.) The reader isn’t so much confused as s/he has her faith in the writer shaken. And, again, the argument against the serial comma is simply an argument for laziness.***

So now that we’ve established that grammar rules should help us say exactly what we mean, let’s talk about diction, itself. Word choice is, like, so important and stuff. Like totally. Diction helps writers accomplish just about everything in a story. And poor diction gets in the way of doing this. Word choice in a story establishes a tone for the piece. If it’s in first person, the narrator “chooses” the words, so those words must reflect his/her background, education, social status, etc. If they don’t, the story fails. Even if the story is in second or third person, it’s probably a fairly close POV, which means the language should still reflect the POV character’s background, education, etc. etc. at least somewhat. The more the diction does reflect the POV character’s milieu, the more cohesive the story will seem to the reader. (This is a subtle thing. You can tell the reader “This takes place in Savannah, Georgia,” but that really means practically nothing. Using word choice to make the story truly feel like Savannah, Georgia, is much more effective.) This attention to detail is, really and truly, one of the things that separate a novice from an expert writer. Remember that, as a writer, you’re trying to create a captivating world, a dream that the reader can get lost in, so that world needs to draw them in. Word choice is one of the primary ways to do it.

Of course, this means you have to know a whole hell of a lot about your characters, right? Well, sort of. You have to bluff the reader into thinking you do, anyway, and do it convincingly enough that they think they know a lot about the characters too. This is all about details and sunglasses. (See how I brought those back?)

A man enters the examination room wearing a white coat and a stethoscope. He glances at the patient sitting on an examination table, sees that she’s overweight, and sneers a little, almost unconsciously, before returning his gaze to his charts.

Okay, let’s examine this snippet. First, it looks like a doctor, so we’re halfway there. Next, see how he behaves. He’s arrogant, lacking in a certain amount of humanity. It’s not that surprising that a doctor might exhibit these qualities, since doctors do deal with life and death frequently, after all. I could’ve given all sorts of details and doctor jargon to try to make this believable, but instead, I went straight for character development, which is much more effective. Frankly, I know very little about medicine, but I know people. When they say “write what you know” that’s what they mean. Writers know people. Write people. The reader doesn’t really care about whether the “doctor” in the snippet knows how to use the stethoscope properly.

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