Among the occasional amusements I get from writing these weekly essays are earnest comments from people who want to correct my writing style. I field one of them every month or so, and the latest example came in over the electronic transom in response to last week’s post. Like most of its predecessors, it insisted that there’s only one correct way to write for the internet, trotted out a set of canned rules that supposedly encapsulate this one correct way, and assumed as a matter of course that the only reason I didn’t follow those rules is that I’d somehow managed not to hear about them yet.
The latter point is the one I find most amusing, and also most curious. Maybe I’m naive, but it’s always seemed to me that if I ran across someone who was writing in a style I found unusual, the first thing I’d want to do would be to ask the author why he or she had chosen that stylistic option—because, you know, any writer who knows the first thing about his or her craft chooses the style he or she finds appropriate for any given writing project. I field such questions once in a blue moon, and I’m happy to answer them, because I do indeed have reasons for writing these essays in the style I’ve chosen for them. Yet it’s much more common to get the sort of style policing I’ve referenced above—and when that happens, you can bet your bottom dollar that what’s being pushed is the kind of stilted, choppy, dumbed-down journalistic prose that I’ve deliberately chosen not to write.
I’m going to devote a post to all this, partly because I write what I want to write about, the way I want to write about it, for the benefit of those who enjoy reading it, and those who don’t are encouraged to remember that there are thousands of other blogs out there that they’re welcome to read instead. Partly, though, the occasional thudding of what Giordano Bruno called “the battering rams of infants, the catapults of error, the bombards of the inept, and the lightning flashes, thunder, and great tempests of the ignorant”—now there was a man who could write!—raises issues that are central to the occasional series of essays on education I’ve been posting here.
Accepting other people’s advice on writing is a risky business—and yes, that applies to this blog post as well as any other source of such advice. It’s by no means always true that “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” but when we’re talking about unsolicited writing advice on the internet, that’s the way to bet. Thus it’s not enough for some wannabe instructor to tell you “I’ve taught lots of people” (taught them what?) or “I’ve helped lots of people” (to do what?)—the question you need to ask is what the instructor himself or herself has written and where it’s been published.
The second of those matters as much as the first. It so happens, for example, that a great many of the professors who offer writing courses at American universities publish almost exclusively in the sort of little literary quarterlies that have a circulation in three figures and pay contributors in spare copies. (It’s not coincidental that these days, most of the little literary quarterlies in question are published by university English departments.) There’s nothing at all wrong with that, if you dream of writing the sort of stories, essays, and poetry that populate little literary quarterlies.
If you want to write something else, though, it’s worth knowing that these little quarterlies have their own idiosyncratic literary culture. There was a time when the little magazines were one of the standard stepping stones to a successful writing career, but that time went whistling down the wind decades ago. Nowadays, the little magazines have gone one way, the rest of the publishing world has gone another, and many of the habits the little magazines encourage (or even require) in their writers will guarantee prompt and emphatic rejection slips from most other writing venues.
Different kinds of writing, in other words, have their own literary cultures and stylistic customs. In some cases, those can be roughly systematized in the form of rules. That being the case, is there actually some set of rules that are followed by everything good on the internet?
Er, that would be no. I’m by no means a fan of the internet, all things considered—I publish my essays here because most of the older venues I’d prefer no longer exist—but it does have its virtues, and one of them is the remarkable diversity of style to be found there. If you like stilted, choppy, dumbed-down journalistic prose of the sort my commenter wanted to push on me, why, yes, you can find plenty of it online. You can also find lengthy, well-argued essays written in complex and ornate prose, stream-of-consciousness pieces that out-beat the Beat generation, experimental writing of any number of kinds, and more. Sturgeon’s Law (“95% of everything is crap”) applies here as it does to every other human creation, but there are gems to be found online that range across the spectrum of literary forms and styles. No one set of rules applies.
Thus we can dismiss the antics of the style police out of hand. Let’s go deeper, though. If there’s no one set of rules that internet writing ought to follow, are there different rules for each kind of writing? Or are rules themselves the problem? This is where things get interesting.
One of the consistent mental hiccups of American popular culture is the notion that every spectrum consists solely of its two extremes, with no middle ground permitted, and that bit of paralogic gets applied to writing at least as often as to anything else. Thus you have, on the one hand, the claim that the only way to write well is to figure out what the rules are and follow them with maniacal rigidity; on the other, the claim that the only way to write well is to throw all rules into the trash can and let your inner genius, should you happen to have one of those on hand, spew forth the contents of your consciousness all anyhow onto the page. Partisans of those two viewpoints snipe at one another from behind rhetorical sandbags, and neither one of them ever manages more than a partial victory, because neither approach is particularly useful when it comes to the actual practice of writing.
By and large, when people write according to a rigidly applied set of rules—any rigidly applied set of rules—the result is predictable, formulaic, and trite, and therefore boring. By and large, when people write without paying any attention to rules at all, the result is vague, shapeless, and maundering, and therefore boring. Is there a third option? You bet, and it starts by taking the abandoned middle ground: in this case, learning an appropriate set of rules, and using them as a starting point, but departing from them wherever doing so will improve the piece you’re writing.
The set of rules I recommend, by the way, isn’t meant to produce the sort of flat PowerPoint verbiage my commenter insists on. It’s meant to produce good readable English prose, and the source of guidance I recommend to those who are interested in such things is Strunk and White’s deservedly famous The Elements of Style. Those of my readers who haven’t worked with it, who want to improve their writing, and who’ve glanced over what I’ve published and decided that they might be able to learn something useful from me, could do worse than to read it and apply it to their prose.
A note of some importance belongs here, though. There’s a thing called writer’s block, and it happens when you try to edit while you’re writing. I’ve read, though I’ve misplaced the reference, that neurologists have found that the part of the brain that edits and the part of the brain that creates are not only different, they conflict with one another. If you try to use both of them at once, your brain freezes up in a fairly close neurological equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death, and you stop being able to write at all. That’s writer’s block. To avoid it, NEVER EDIT WHILE YOU’RE WRITING.
I mean that quite literally. Don’t even look at the screen if you can’t resist the temptation to second-guess the writing process. If you have to, turn the screen off, so you can’t even see what you’re writing. Eventually, with practice, you’ll learn to move smoothly back and forth between creative mode and editing mode, but if you don’t have a lot of experience writing, leave that for later. For now, just blurt it all out without a second thought, with all its misspellings and garbled grammar intact.
Then, after at least a few hours—or better yet, after a day or so—go back over the mess, cutting, pasting, adding, and deleting as needed, until you’ve turned it into nice clean text that says what you want it to say. Yes, we used to do that back before computers; the process is called “cut and paste” because it was done back then with a pair of scissors and a pot of paste, the kind with a little spatula mounted on the inside of the lid to help you spread the stuff; you’d cut out the good slices of raw prose and stick them onto a convenient sheet of paper, interspersed with handwritten or freshly typed additions. Then you sat down and typed your clean copy from the pasted-up mess thus produced. Now you know how to do it when the internet finally dries up and blows away. (You’re welcome.)
In the same way, you don’t try to write while looking up rules in Strunk & White. Write your piece, set it aside for a while, and then go over it with your well-worn copy of Strunk & White in hand, noting every place you broke one of the rules of style the book suggests you should follow. The first few times, as a learning exercise, you might consider rewriting the whole thing in accordance with those rules—but only the first few times. After that, make your own judgment call: is this a place where you should follow the rules, or is this a place where they need to be bent, broken, or trampled into the dust? Only you, dear reader-turned-writer, can decide.
A second important note deserves to be inserted at this point, though. The contemporary US public school system can be described without too much inaccuracy as a vast mechanism for convincing children that they can’t write. Rigid rules imposed for the convenience of educators rather than the good of the students, part of the industrial mass-production ethos that pervades public schools in this country, leave a great many graduates so bullied, beaten, and bewildered by bad pedagogy that the thought of writing something for anybody else to read makes them turn gray with fear. It’s almost as bad as the terror of public speaking the public schools also go out of their way to inflict, and it plays a comparable role in crippling people’s capacity to communicate outside their narrow circles of friends.
If you suffer from that sort of educational hangover, dear reader, draw a deep breath and relax. The bad grades and nasty little comments in red ink you got from Mrs. Melba McNitpick, your high school English teacher, are no reflection of your actual capacities as a writer. If you can talk, you can write—it’s the same language, after all. For that matter, even if you can’t talk, you may be able to write—there’s a fair number of people out there who are nonverbal for one reason or another, and can still make a keyboard dance.
The reason I mention this here is that the thought of making an independent judgment about when to follow the rules and when to break them fills a great many survivors of American public schools with dread. In far too many cases, students are either expected to follow the rules with mindless obedience and given bad grades if they fail to do so, or given no rules at all and then expected to conform to unstated expectations they have no way to figure out, and either of these forms of bad pedagogy leaves scars. Again, readers who are in this situation should draw a deep breath and relax; having left Mrs. McNitpick’s class, you’re not subject to her opinions any longer, and should ignore them utterly.
So how do you decide where to follow the rules and where to fold, spindle, and mutilate them? That’s where we walk through the walls and into the fire, because what guides you in your decisions regarding the rules of English prose is the factor of literary taste.
Rules can be taught, but taste can only be learned. Does that sound like a paradox? Au contraire, it simply makes the point that only you can learn, refine, and ripen your literary taste—nobody else can do it for you, or even help you to any significant extent—and your sense of taste is therefore going to be irreducibly personal. When it comes to taste, you aren’t answerable to Mrs. McNitpick, to me, to random prose trolls on the internet, or to anyone else. What’s more, you develop your taste for prose the same way you develop your taste for food: by trying lots of different things, figuring out what you like, and paying close attention to what you like, why you like it, and what differentiates it from the things you don’t like as much.
This is applicable, by the way, to every kind of writing, including those kinds at which the snobs among us turn up their well-sharpened noses. I don’t happen to be a fan of the kind of satirical gay pornography that Chuck Tingle has made famous, for example, but friends of mine who are tell me that in that genre, as in all others, there are books that are well written, books that are tolerable, and books that trip over certain overelongated portions of their anatomy and land face first in—well, let’s not go there, shall we? In the same way, if your idea of a good read is nineteenth-century French comedies of manners, you can find a similar spectrum extending from brilliance to bathos.
Every inveterate reader takes in a certain amount of what I call popcorn reading—the sort of thing that’s read once, mildly enjoyed, and then returned to the library, the paperback exchange, or whatever electronic Elysium e-books enter when you hit the delete button. That’s as inevitable as it is harmless. The texts that matter in developing your personal taste, though, are the ones you read more than once, and especially the ones you read over and over again. As you read these for the third or the thirty-third time, step back now and then from the flow of the story or the development of the argument, and notice how the writer uses language. Learn to notice the really well-turned phrases, the figures of speech that are so apt and unexpected that they seize your attention, the moments of humor, the plays on words, the passages that match tone and pacing to the subject perfectly.
If you’ve got a particular genre in mind—no, let’s stop for a moment and talk about genre, shall we? Those of my readers who endured a normal public school education here in the US probably don’t know that this is pronounced ZHON-ruh (it’s a French word) and it simply means a category of writing. Satirical gay pornography is a genre. The comedy of manners is a genre. The serious contemporary literary novel is a genre. So are mysteries, romance, science fiction, fantasy, and the list goes on. There are also nonfiction genres—for example, future-oriented social criticism, the genre in which nine of my books from The Long Descent to Dark Age America have their place. Each genre is an answer to the question, “I just read this and I liked it—where can I find something else more or less like it?”
Every genre has its own habits and taboos, and if you want to write for publication, you need to know what those are. That doesn’t mean you have to follow those habits and taboos with the kind of rigid obedience critiqued above—quite the contrary—but you need to know about them, so that when you break the rules you do it deliberately and skillfully, to get the results you want, rather than clumsily, because you didn’t know any better. It also helps to read the classics of the genre—the books that established those habits and taboos—and then go back and read books in the genre written before the classics, to get a sense of what possibilities got misplaced when the classics established the frame through which all later works in that genre would be read.
If you want to write epic fantasy, for example, don’t you dare stop with Tolkien—it’s because so many people stopped with Tolkien that we’ve got so many dreary rehashes of something that was brilliantly innovative in 1949, complete with carbon-copy Dark Lords cackling in chorus and the inevitable and unendearing quest to do something with the Magic McGuffin that alone can save blah blah blah. Read the stuff that influenced Tolkien—William Morris, E.R. Eddison, the Norse sagas, the Kalevala, Beowulf. Then read something in the way of heroic epic that he probably didn’t get around to reading—the Ramayana, the Heike Monogatari, the Popol Vuh, or what have you—and think through what those have to say about the broader genre of heroic wonder tale in which epic fantasy has its place.
The point of this, by the way, isn’t to copy any of these things. It’s to develop your own sense of taste so that you can shape your own prose accordingly. Your goal, if you’re at all serious about writing, isn’t to write like Mrs. McNitpick, like your favorite author of satirical gay pornography or nineteenth-century French comedies of manners, or like me, but to write like yourself.
And that, to extend the same point more broadly, is the goal of any education worth the name. The word “education” itself comes from the Latin word educatio, from ex-ducere, “to lead out or bring out;” it’s about leading or bringing out the undeveloped potentials that exist inside the student, not shoving some indigestible bolus of canned information or technique down the student’s throat. In writing as in all other things that can be learned, that process of bringing out those undeveloped potentials requires the support of rules and examples, but those are means to an end, not ends in themselves—and it’s in the space between the rules and their inevitable exceptions, between the extremes of rigid formalism and shapeless vagueness, that the work of creation takes place.
That’s also true of politics, by the way—and the conventional wisdom of our time fills the same role there that the rules for bad internet prose do for writing. Before we can explore that, though, it’s going to be necessary to take on one of the more pervasive bad habits of contemporary thinking about the relationship between the present and the past. We’ll tackle that next week.
********************In not wholly unrelated news, I’m pleased to announce that Merigan Tales, the anthology of short stories written by Archdruid Report readers set in the world of my novel Star’s Reach, is now in print and available for purchase from Founders House. Those of my readers who enjoyed Star’s Reach and the After Oil anthologies won’t want to miss it.