Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Taking Exception to an Experienced Writer’s Rules

A version of this post was originally published in January 2012.

The road to bad writing is paved with Experienced Writers’ rules. Developing a literary style is a long process with no real proven method to it; it takes guesswork, constructive criticism, and a bit of an ear for poetry. Suggestions from established writers are generally helpful. However, every now and again, an Experienced Writer will try to impose on others a set of rules that are almost guaranteed to generate bland, undistinguished prose.

For example: About three years ago, Grammarly.com published a meme titled, “How to Write Good”, by Frank L. Visco, listing 23 rules that Visco said he’d learned in “several years in the word game”. Let’s go through them, shall we?

  1. Avoid Alliteration. Always: If you’re going to alliterate that badly, by all means, refrain. Starting three successive words with the same letter is bad alliteration. However, Anglo-Saxon poetry was highly alliterative, and Shakespeare was a master of distributing alliterative sounds. Trust your ear.
  2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with: This is the sort of absolute rule up with which no one should put.
  3. Avoid clichés like the plague. (They’re old hat.): Okay, I’ll give him this one.
  4. Employ the vernacular: I think he means that polysyllabic words are pretentious and obfuscatory. Alas, unless he’s truly concerned that people might write essays in Latin, Cherokee, or Hindi for publication in English-language media, his choice of vernacular is singularly unfortunate (see No. 21 below).
  5. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.: Ampersands, yes, unless you’re writing the name of a company in which the ampersand appears; for example, Fortnum & Mason’s. Abbreviations, however, are a judgment call, depending on the level of formality and the context (main body? footnote or end note?). Even in formal writing, long phrases (such as “nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons”) are commonly abbreviated (“NBC weapons”).
  6. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are unnecessary: Yes, they’re old hat. Seriously, I probably use parenthetical remarks more than I should, but sometimes they’re good for a quick aside. One of my favorite uses of parentheses occurred in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit: “... [Ogres] absolutely cannot stand the sight of dwarves (uncooked).” It’s almost like a line from Kevin Nealon’s Saturday Night Live character, “Mr. Subliminal”. Keep them to a minimum, but don’t feel you have to eliminate them entirely.
  7. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive: Such as “... to boldly go where no man has gone before”? We split English infinitives because English has a splittable infinitive, unlike German or the Romance languages. The rule is an artificial construct, largely ignored by poets and working writers but beloved of those who suffer from a linguistic inferiority complex. Trust your ear, not the rule.
  8. Contractions aren’t necessary: If you wish to sound like Mister Spock, of course you will not use contractions. If, however, you wish to sound less formal and mechanical, don’t hesitate to break out the apostrophe. It all depends on whom you’re writing for; Catholic Stand prefers more formal writing, but other media may prefer more informal writing.
  9. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos: ... Especially if you misuse them like this. In English — we are discussing English use, right? — the construction “apropos of” is another way of saying, “speaking of”, “concerning” or “on the subject of”. Foreign words and phrases have a use when there’s no real English equivalent, like Schadenfreude (German for “the malicious enjoyment of someone else’s misfortune”, always capitalized and italicized).  Yiddish words are almost always apposite and humorous; alas, Yiddishisms are sadly dropping out of common parlance (Oy gevalt!). However, you should refrain from using foreign words unless they’re already in common English use or, if they’re not, you translate them for the benefit of the audience. Otherwise, there’s no need to say “le mot juste” when you can just as easily say “the right word”. And, as Mr. Visco unwittingly demonstrates, you should avoid foreign locutions unless you’re certain of their meanings. 
  10. One should never generalize: Nicholas Cage can’t always be specific.
  11. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.” I’d be happy to tell you what I know. But while writers are reputed to have double-XL egos, mine isn’t so robust that I can convince myself of my startlingly original insight. This is especially true if I’m acting in my capacity as a Catholic apologist and am appealing to centuries of tradition, in which case the odds are vanishingly small that I will think of something no one has thought of before, let alone put in words much more concise and memorable than mine. As well, because I am a Catholic and speak with other Christians, I’m expected to cite Scripture: “Any charge must be sustained by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (2 Corinthians 13:1; cf. Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15). As St. Jerome said, “Even Cato was not believed on his unsupported evidence” (Apology Against Rufinus, 2:24). If your insight is true, then the odds are some great mind of the past has also seen and remarked on it. Avail yourself of supporting evidence and testimony.
  12. Comparisons are as bad as clichés: To what shall I compare this generation? Apparently nothing, because Mr. Visco doesn’t like verbal illustration. Anything to make persuasion more difficult.
  13. Don’t be redundant; don’t use more words than necessary; it’s highly superfluous: Redundancy and superfluity I get — they’re bad things. However, how many words are “more than necessary?” It’s like the Emperor’s complaint in Amadeus: “Too many notes.” (Oh, I’m sorry — that was a comparison, wasn’t it? AACK! I’m making a parenthetical remark!) A mere rephrase of Strunk and White’s rule, “Omit needless words,” this is the least helpful stylistic advice ever foisted on hapless writers.
  14. Profanity sucks: I’ll give him this one, too. English now has over one million words in its vocabulary; why should you limit yourself to those with four letters? Tolkien found such language “dreary and repetitive with hatred and contempt, too long removed from good to retain even verbal vigour, save in the ears of those to whom only the squalid sounds strong,” and called their practitioners “the orc-minded”. Such a description of profanity deserves applause.
  15. Be more or less specific: Eighty-five point seven percent of the time I agree with this. In the other 14.3%, I can see a need for a little vagueness.
  16. Understatement is always best: It depends. If you’re writing British humor, certainly you should understate. If you’re writing satire, you want to exaggerate. If, however, you’re writing a think piece, then understate only if precision is out of reach.
  17. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement: See No. 16. Otherwise, yeah, exaggeration outside of satire is merely exasperating and ruinous to credibility.
  18. One word sentences? Eliminate: No. Give transitive verbs like eliminate direct objects. Avoid the shtick-y Putting. A. Period. After. Every. Word. Sometimes, however, one word is all you need.
  19. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake: Especially if you don’t know the difference between an analogy and a simile, let alone between a good simile and a bad one.
  20. The passive voice is to be avoided: [EDIT:] Avoided? Sometimes it’s impossible to avoid, especially with past participles, as Nathaniel C. pointed out to me below. Perhaps it’s better to say, “The active voice is to be preferred.”
  21. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms: Where did Mr. Visco learn his terms? Not all colloquialisms are artificially folksy like this example. To speak colloquially is to speak informally, to use everyday language such as “everyday” instead of “quotidian” ... to “employ the vernacular”, as he misstated above. It’s language in business-casual clothes, rather than a lab coat or a tuxedo. Yes, try to avoid the glaring regionalism (“Uff da!”), the written accent (“Ah dew declayah!”, “Dinna mess wi’ things ye ken nuthin’ aboot!”), and please, please, please, no good-ol’-boy locutions! But don’t concern yourself so much with eliminating casualness that your writing becomes impersonal or distant.
  22. Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed: If you run it up the flagpole, I’ll take a flyer on it. Three out of twenty-two isn’t bad — it’s atrocious. Pitchers have better batting averages.
  23. Who needs rhetorical questions? Are you kidding me?

Before I go, let me propose a rule of my own:

  1. Let’s be proactive and terminate all corporate jargon on a going-forward basis.