Friday, October 12, 2007

Good writing

This is one of those blog entries where, by putting down something here, I can stop boring the pants of every poor soul in real life. I seem, for example, to have had the same pitched battle about this some half-a-dozen times while in Swansea. So apologies if you have heard it before, and apologies if you feel your eyeballs being fried by red-hot rant and spittle.

(Yes, it’s also one I’ve written on before. But it’s not like you’re paying for this stuff anyway, is it?)

Also, this is something I have to consider daily, what with it being My Job. I am all too aware that the vast body of the human species giveth not a shit. If that’s you, you can go about your business. Move along. These are not the droids you’re looking for.

Bad writing is nothing to do with punctuation.
There, I have said it. And I am all too aware that many people disagree. I have met people – and even otherwise respect some of them – who think well of Lynn Truss’s “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”.

Ignoring its contradictions, its smug tone, its not having an index despite supposedly being a reference book for those involved in writing, the Big Sin of “Eats…” is that it assumes meaning is all in the apostrophes. It argues that if we don’t put our plurals and possessives in the right places, no one will get what we mean.

But the shop windows and market stalls that the book so hilariously points its gnarled and withered fingers at surely beg to differ. The meaning of “new potatoe’s” is clear enough to attract the shoppers, even if it’s not technically correct. The sky does not fall on our heads because of it, and the stall holders’ trade cannot be seen to suffer.

Bad punctuation can be annoying, but there are other, direr sins in the sphere of scribbling with which to get all angry.

Bad writing is not being understood.
As we have seen before, George Orwell wrote as far back as 1946 that in any of these grammatical, syntactic, punctuational quandaries, we should “let meaning choose”.

We should be clear, we should be concise and we should get our meaning across vividly. All other considerations follow, so long as we are understood.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t bother at all with apostrophes. As a professional scribbler, grammar is one of the things I have to Get Right. Inconsistency is distracting even if it doesn’t warp the meaning of a given clause.

What bothers me, though, is the special attention often given to this one, minor aspect of scribblin’.

Hung-up on a comma
As Truss herself admits, there are no hard and fast rules to this stuff anyway. Some nineteenth-century publications help us see how our conventions are governed by fashion. Truss gives the example of some nineteenth-century prose where every other word is followed by a comma. But there are books where colons and semi-colons are always preceded with a space, or where words like “bloke” and “gent” are italicised for their strangeness.

So while there are conventions of use (a comma is a pause not a breathing space, for example), these are not set in stone. Rather than Truss providing the rule for use, she presents a rule, based on her own personal bias.

In my work, the arguments about punctuation I’ve sat through are often less about something being more helpful or clear, as about defending someone’s grasp of the “rule”. If I had an Asterix book for every time someone said, “But I was taught….”, I’d probably be up to the Mansions of the Gods.

I don’t share some people’s delight in misplaced apostrophes, and the Facebook group damning those who use “you’re” instead of “your” beshudders me with fear (because I do that all the time, first draft). It’s ironic that Truss says punctuation is a matter of courtesy, since she then discourteously mocks all those lesser-schooled persons who so obviously get it wrong.

More importantly, the arguments I’ve witnessed have got so caught up in whether the singular possessive should be followed by an “s”, even when the word ends “s” or “z”, that they entirely ignore whether the average reader will understand what the sentence is getting at.

In this way, punctuation can all too be too attentive to small details, ignoring the important, bigger picture and so of no practical or moral value to anyone.

“What, like the Alpha Course?” some wags might say. Wholly unfairly, of course.

Clarity rules
Orwell argues for simplicity, concise construction and fresh lucidity of image. This plain style makes prose compelling and ensures against muddiness of thought – from the writer as well as the reader.

Likewise, the precise use of words can lend greater meaning to our writing. But too often readers do not need to worry about the difference between, for example, jealousy and envy.

(Strictly speaking, you are envious of something not in your possession, and guard jealously something that is. But the two are used pretty interchangeably.)

There are rules for clarity of writing – and ones we ought to learn at school. The Dangerous Book for Boys says there are nine kinds of word in any sentence: noun; verb; adverb; adjective; pronoun; conjunction; article; preposition; interjection. But it would be more useful to say that most sentences have one purpose.

Sentences describe where things are (in relation to one another)
Language tells us where things are and what they are doing – often in relation to one another. To get all technical, we might talk of an “object” that affects or defines a “subject”.

The simplest proper sentence in English is three letters long: “I am”. That tells us what an object (me) is doing. We can then add more detail to that statement: “I am male” (adjective), “I am writing” (verb), “I am writing nonsense” (verb, adverb), “I am writing nonsense but later, oh yes, I’ll be going to dinner across the river with my mum” (showing off now).

This is all a way of mapping our reality, making sense of all the noise and activity around us so that we can better make our way through it, and direct our neighbours, too.

Good writing shows us where to go. The best writing even takes us there.

Do they laugh?
You can’t fake comedy. You tell a joke and if it’s funny people laugh.

In a lot of ways, writing is like telling a joke. You can tell the same joke in different ways, embellishing it to suit the audience in question. You might change the details of the set-up, or change the pace or choice of words. And if you’re telling the joke in person, you watch the person you’re telling, adjusting your performance in time to their response. All this is done to achieve the pay-off: that they laugh at your punchline.

Good writing also has a pay-off, but it’s not necessarily that the audience laughs. You might want them to cry, or to remember some salient detail (“This supermarket sells good food”, “That man cannot be trusted”).

You also shape your writing based on your audience’s responses. Often, though, you’re shaping it in advance, pre-empting and guessing at their responses.

Just as a comedian might have some smaller, wryer laughs in the lead-up to a big woof, you structure your writing to engage and excite an audience. When you’re telling a joke in person, you can gauge an audience’s interest, and throw in details and asides to keep them hanging on your words. In prose, you can combat the flagging of the crowd with “reversals” (i.e. plot twists) and cliffhangers.

The memory doesn’t cheat
A former boss told me a good one. “There are two types of presentation,” he said. “There’s the ones done on PowerPoint and the ones you remember.”

PowerPoint is all too often used to present complex and cluttered information, where the presenter is more concerned about getting all the information down than that the audience retain any salient points. Likewise, in the examples of bad writing that Orwell cites, the reader may read all the words but does not retain their meaning.

Good writing can contain bad grammar and punctuation, just as the best comedians need not wear a suit and tie. You remember good writing. You remember vivid details, choice turns of phrase, even the plot twists that came out of nowhere.

As much as “let meaning choose”, the rule might be “will my writing stick?”


Liadnan said...

"I am" isn't a particularly simple sentence at all...

0tralala said...

Why you little scamp!

It is grammatically, if not philosophically.

Peter A said...

Jesus wept!

In other news: I think Strunk & White's splendid book The Elements of Style is a useful and concise guide for any writer. And it's available free, gratis, and for nothing online:

PowerPoint is just a tool, and can be well-used or badly. But a biro or a felt-tip pen or a blackboard-plus-chalk rarely leads one so readily to poor communication. In part, that's because of PowerPoint's clear text and compelling graphics, plus the seductive charm of its transitions. It offers the illusion of meaning.

The other major cause of PowerPoint Poisoning is that so many companies not only mandate its use but also provide templates that do not enhance meaning but instead provide a cage within which all content must be crushed. Here's an example, in which the Gettysburg Address has been rendered in PowerPoint:

I think the same is true of word processors; any fule kno that they can write these days -- why look, it's in Times Roman 12pt and there's an HTML version accessible to billions.

With so many monkeys writing Shakespeare these days, it's no surprise that some readers and editors and publishers use criteria such as spelling, grammar, and punctuation as a first indicator of whether something's worth their attention. As Strunk & White would say:

It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules. After he has learned, by their guidance, to write plain English adequate for everyday uses, let him look, for the secrets of style, to the study of the masters of literature.

Liadnan said...

I'm not sure I agree that it is even grammatically. The verb "to be" is never simple. Anyway, language informs philosophy...

More seriously, I think you take Truss far more seriously than she intends. ES&L is a rant, that's all it intends to be, and a tongue in cheek one at that: and yes it's over the top, and internally inconsistent, and breaks its own rules, because it's a rant. It's not supposed to be Hart's Rules, or ODWE, or Fowler, or the Chicago Manual, or anything else of the sort.

Depressing day at our AM. Saw MattK though.

Liadnan said...

PS powerpoint is actively damaging: the Australians have proved it so it must be true.
The only point (hah) of the thing is to give you something to look at rather than fall asleep in tedious seminars.

Liadnan said...

Oh for god's sake. link

Leslie said...

I'm glad someone pointed out Strunk & White.
We had some other book instead of the Struss as our guide on ye olde literary mag Scribendi. I tend to get a big obsessive about grammar and punctuation; I admit it, all those possessives misplaced in signs in Britain annoyed me. Maybe because I never get your and you're confused. And I stick pretty fast to the rules I was "taught" *shudder shudder* about commas. The point, however, is even if you're trying to be correct in one form of English (US perhaps) it's not the same in another (British, for example). Er ... I don't know where I was going with that, but ...

0tralala said...

Ooh, lots of comment!

Don't get me wrong: punctuation is important. But I think there's too much emphasis placed on it as the marker of "bad writing". Clarity of thought and being understood are much more important. And too many people I know who get uppity about commas and colons can't even conceive of writing simply.

(The commentators here being honourable and manly exceptions, of course.)

Elements of Style looks good - thanks for the link. And it was learning how to use Flash that really made me hate PowerPoint. To get Flash to work properly, you have to think simply; you can't just dump content into it. One of my mentors said Flash had its own philosophy...

That philosophy is basically "What do I want the user to get from this? How can I do that most simply?"

And I know Truss is ranting. I am ranting back.